SF has seen literally hundreds of authors fall by the wayside, many of whom, admittedly, produced crap. But there have been others who produced a solid body of work that just failed to find the large audience needed to sustain a really successful career. Bayley belongs to the latter camp. Born in 1937 (and still with us as of this writing), with his most prolific period spanning the 60's and 70's, Bayley hasn't had an original novel published since 1985, the year that saw this final effort for DAW. (Two recent books remain unpublished, and Bayley did write a potboiler for the game-based Warhammer series in 1999.) The Forest of Peldain is an often gripping action-adventure odyssey that amply showcases his straightforward prose style and nimble imagination.
The novel, erroneously marketed by DAW as a "heroic fantasy" complete with an atrocious faux-Conan cover, is an SF story set on a world whose only inhabitable land-masses are an archipelago called the Hundred Islands. These islands are all part of the Empire of Arelia, ruled by the beneficent King Krassos. Nearby lies the continent of Peldain, which is covered by a vast forest full of scarifying man-eating plants of all shapes and sizes.
Into Arelia comes one Askon Octrago, who claims to have made his way through Peldain's impenetrable forest. He also claims to be the deposed, rightful ruler of a kingdom that exists past the forest within Peldain's interior, and promises fealty to Arelia if an army returns to Peldain with him to help him reclaim his throne. Some are skeptical of Octrago's claims and motives, but Krassos orders an army to go on the expedition anyway, led by Lord Vorduthe. Vorduthe, Octrago, and their men sail to Peldain and plunge into the forest (their way cleared somewhat by huge flame-throwing tanks), where they are promptly set upon by an amazing array of fearsome plants that will forever make you paranoid the next time you're walking through a park or a nature trail. This sequence of the book — pretty much its entire first half — is tremendously entertaining. You find yourself wondering what's going to gobble up our heroes next. There's a lot of creativity at work here, even if it's all in the interests of finding amusing and slimy ways to kill people.
As the journey continues and the nightmarish attacks on his ever-shrinking army never seem to end, Vorduthe's doubts about Octrago build. But Vorduthe is singularly unprepared for what he learns once they reach their journey's end.
Though some elements of this story are predictable, Bayley hits you with a few good surprises as it nears its climax. The care with which he has structured his plot is admirable. Explanations given for the nature of the forest, and its relationship to the Peldainian people, are plenty clever even if they don't bear too close scrutiny. But the most likable thing about this book is its pure entertainment value. Not overlong as so many current SF novels are, it manages to be a nifty little read all the way through. Bayley gives this creepily fun story of exploration, peril, and treachery his distinct stamp, and the resolution is most satisfying in its refusal to wrap everything up in a pat little package. This is one to scour used book stores or eBay for. Better yet, fans ought to support the efforts of Cosmos Books, a small press imprint that has boldly decided to reissue all of Bayley's novels for a new generation to enjoy.