The Alexandrian

Sign of the Labrys - Margaret St. ClairI came to this novel by way of Gary Gygax by way of Appendix N of the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide by way of James Maliszewski at Grognardia.

I think it’s safe to say that, if not for that rather remarkable (and lengthy) chain of recommendations, I would probably have never read this slim volume — which, as far as I know, was published in 1963 and never seen again.

Sign of the Labrys is a post-apocalyptic tale of the sort commonly found in mid-20th century science fiction. What sets it apart is that it is also, although it doesn’t strictly look like it at first, science fantasy. (This becomes clear fairly quickly, but the exact reasons for its fantastical nature constitute a spoiler so drastic that I won’t even hint at it here.)

The ways in which Sign of the Labrys inspired Gygax’s dungeoncraft become both rapidly and intriguingly apparent: Sam Sewell, the protagonist of the tale, lives in a vast underground complex of modified caverns that was built as a refuge before the collapse of civilization. The apocalypse thinned out the population (killing nine in ten) and eradicated central authority, leaving behind vast catacombs of uninhabited space which small, spontaneous societies have repurposed in a variety of ways.

In short, Sign of the Labrys reads like a strange hybrid of Dungeons & Dragons and Metamorphosis Alpha. Here we find a clear predecessor of Castle Greyhawk: A multi-cultural, subterranean menagerie laid out in a pattern of levels and sub-levels connected by both the well-known thoroughfares and a plentitude of secret passages and hidden ladders.

This, by itself, would have made Sign of the Labrys a fascinating and worthwhile novel for a D&D afficionado like myself. But I also found the novel to be very entertaining in its own right. Addictive, in fact. It’s got a page-turning, pulpy pace mixed together with some nigh-poetic language and a strange, enigmatic mystery that leaves you yearning to know the answer.

Stylistically Sign of the Labrys reminds me quite favorably of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. It possesses the strange, otherworldly, and fantastical approach to matters of science fiction which characterizes the best of their work. Particularly Moore’s. Like Moore’s classic Jirel of Joiry stories, Sign of the Labrys reminds me of Alice in Wonderland smashed through the broken mirror of another genre’s conceits and set pieces. If I were to say that¬†Sign of the Labrys periodically reads as if the author had taken a tab of LSD before sitting down at her typewriter it would not be wholly inaccurate. (It would, however, be rather less than charitable, as St. Clair’s writing is not merely a drug-induced rambling. In fact, it works consistently towards a larger stylistic and revelatory purpose.)

In the end, I found Sign of the Labrys to be delightfully entertaining. And since, like me, you are unlikely to encounter it by chance, I shall pass on the same recommendation that was given to me: From Gygax to AD&D to Grognardia to me to the Alexandrian and thus to you…

Find a copy if you can.


Margaret St. Clair
Published: 1963
Publisher: Bantam Books
Cover Price: $0.60
Buy Now!

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One Response to “What I’m Reading #66 – Sign of the Labrys”

  1. Justin Alexander says:


    Justin Alexander
    @Tom: Sure. You’re not going to find grade inflation here. If a book gets a B grade it’s “very enjoyable. I recommend it, and it might be worth a reread”. The minus indicates it’s got some issues (which, apparently, Chris finds far more troublesome than I do).
    Friday, June 05, 2009, 1:16:07 AM

    “Find a copy if you can,” and yet you give it a B-?
    Wednesday, May 20, 2009, 2:27:58 PM

    OK, read the book. Came away with a very different view. It’s a semi-good sci-fi story buried under a pile of author tract-ish New Age pagan guff.

    -= Spoiler =-

    X character kills off 9/10ths of humanity, but the (ostensible) villains are still supposed to be the bad guys? Riiiiiiight. Single biggest Broken Aesop I’ve read in a long time.

    D. Pulp hackwork in need of a decent editor. Must try harder.
    Saturday, May 09, 2009, 9:24:39 AM

    Dang it Justin, not more excellent recommendations!

    Between you and Valdemar Squelch this is becoming an expensive week for me. I may yet have to set up a deal exchanging organs for book credit. Wink
    Wednesday, May 06, 2009, 4:18:19 AM

    Amityville Mike
    I finished this one myself about a month or two ago. I meant to write about the novel but it never got past the draft stage.

    I’m glad that you managed to cover it because the subterranean complex presented in the novel is the prototype of “the dungeon” as well know it seen through the lens of Gygax. It was almost disconcerting to read the book and having to keep remembering that this wasn’t a role-playing supplement. So much of what is presented in its pages is spot on to what we’ve come to think of as a megadungeon. It’s a must read for every gamer, young and old. You’ll walk away from it with a greater understanding of the dungeon as a game setting.
    Tuesday, May 05, 2009, 11:59:44 PM

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