The Official Newsletter of the Washington Science Fiction
Association -- ISSN 0894-5411
Edited by Joe Mayhew
Different Shades of Fantasy Part I
Edited by Joe Mayhew
TYPICAL AND NON-TYPICAL FANTASIES. PART I
A Thematic Review by Samuel Lubell
We all know about the generic "big" fantasy. You take your peasant hero of noble/magical blood, give him (almost always a him) a wizard mentor, a princess to fight for, and a magical object that's the only thing that will prevent the Dark Lord (of whatever name) from winning total dominion over everyone and everything. And, by the end of the book or series the hero defeats the bad guy and becomes either ruler of the world or the super magic user (and sometimes both.) We see this in Eddings, we see this in Jordan, and we can see it yet again in Terry Goodkind's WIZARD'S FIRST RULE. In this book the princess is replaced by a Confessor instead, the object being quested for is a magic box (yes, really) and the Dark Lord is named Darken (yes, really) Rahl. There's a nice touch about a boundary separating the three lands preventing magic from entering the land where the hero, Richard Cypher (yes, really) lives. As a result, when he is given the magical sword of truth and sent on a mission to stop Darken, he knows little about magic (with one very large and coincidental exception) and this lack of knowledge causes him to make a big mistake late in the book.
Although the characters were at most wooden, one minor character, that of a spoiled brat princess had a real spark of (evil) personality, and her servant girl/playmate was interesting too. This led up to one of the less predictable scenes. At one point the playmate has something the main characters need and runs into them just when they need it. I began scream that this was too much coincidence even for a big standard fantasy but then she leaves *without even letting them know she has it.* This clearly shows that the author is able to be a little more venturesome than he was elsewhere in this book.
There is a satisfactory conclusion as one side wins (three guesses which) although a sequel, (for some odd reason the generically obvious title WIZARD'S SECOND RULE promised on the dustjacket lost out to STONE OF TEAR) is already out. One question: when did enslavement through torture become de rigueur for the standard big fantasy novel? It was present in Jordan and almost the exact same device is here. The book is acceptably written for its type; I'd rate it higher than Eddings although a notch below Jordan. Fans of those two writers will like this one, the rest of us have read it all before.
At first glance Katharine herr's DAGGERSPELL, (Bantam Spectra, $5.50) the first of her Deverry books, seems a typical fantasy. There is a sorcerer under a curse (well, sort of), elves (Tolkien style, not little folk), dwarfs, and sprites called wildfolk. There is also a mercenary band of silver daggers. However, in this case, first appearances are deceiving. The book is made original and interesting through two devices. The first is the idea of reincarnation. In his youth, wizard (actually he is called a dweomarmaster), Nevyn, makes a wrong decision and harms the lives of those around him. He swears an oath that he will never rest until they are repaid, however long it takes. 400 years later he is still at it. His friends and foes keep on being reborn, into different identities with no memories of their other selves. And Nevyn seeks the reincarnation of the woman he was to marry, to train her in the magic of the dweomar. Much of the fun of the series is in recognizing the older characters in their new guises (there's a chart in the back if this becomes too confusing.) And the author jumps from one time period to the other throughout the book, in fact throughout the series (Currently 8 books and counting.)
The main plot of DAGGERSPELL is anything but straightforwardly predictable except in one respect. In this land of clans and warleaders, a rebellion threatens to disrupt the balance of power. And since the gwerbret (sort of an underking) hates his brother who will inherit these lands where their mother dies, he allows the rebellion to proceed in the hopes his brother Rhodry will be killed. However the rebellion is being assisted by a dweomarmaster who has pronounced a prophecy that no man will strike the blow that will kill the leader (which leads to the predictable solution.) Fortunately, Rhodry has the assistance of the best living swordsman, the silver dagger named Cullyn, but also Cullyn's daughter Jill who not only is a good fighter in her own right, but also the reincarnated soul that Nevyn must train to the dweomar if he is to fulfill his vows and die. Jill is actually the book's other main character as the stress of the war begins to develop Jill's own abilities as both warrior and magic-user. And there are several other twists I haven't mentioned. And, best of all, the ending, while happy, is not the happy ending most readers would have predicted.
The other crucial difference is in the background. This is not a pretty, cleaned-up generic middle ages. The author shows the grimy details, the dirt and sweat that is the dirty underside of more conventional fantasy. "It was odd, Cullyn always thought, that while bards sang of warriors slicing each other into shreds, you generally killed a man by beating him to death with your sword." The silver daggers, the mercenary soldiers for hire whose are a running presence in the book are not presented as glamorous heroes, but as, disgraced men. fighting for coin instead of for honor. And early in the book, when two noble lords fight over the right to graze their pigs in the same woods, the honor is revealed for the petty thing it is:
"Da, I don't understand," Jill broke in. "You mean someone was killed over pig food?" "It's the honor of the thing!" Braedd slammed his tankard on the table so hard that the ale jumped out and spilled. "Never will I let a man take what's rightfully mine. The honor of my warband calls out for vengeance! We'll fight to the last man." "Pity we can't arm the swine," Cullyn said. "Everyone will fight for their own food."
This level of detail and sense of irony, turns what could have been conventional fantasy into something more. The stark realism, only makes the magic stand out more even though the dweomar, the magic, is also low key. Nevyn can scry (see people who are far away), cast illusions, create fire, and throw sparks and a few other tricks. Those trained by the elves can change into giant birds. But that's about that magic can do. Still, in this gritty realistic seeming world, even this small amount of magic can turn the balance.
"For a long time they sat in silence, the noble-born as cowed as their men. Rhodry wondered why none of them --and he included himself in this--were comforted by the knowledge that they had dweomar on their side. Finally he realized that they all felt insignificant, mere playing stones on a game board of the dweomar's choosing. For weeks Rhodry had thought of himself as the focus of the rebellion and his death as its goal. Now he'd become only a pebble, set down as one small move in a war between Aderyn and Loddlaen."
The believable background, combined with the complex plot and use of multiple time periods to add depth to the characters, produces a rich, complex novel that is like a series in a single volume. All the characters seem to ring true; the reincarnations are just similar enough so the reader can tell they are the same even while differing in temperament and intelligence.
This is a comfort book, a book that is read over and over again for pure fun. It rises above its roots in the typical fantasy quest/adventure novel. Fans of Mercedes Lackey who want to try something deeper and more complex will find this series a perfect entry point to higher level fantasy novels. An earlier version of this novel was published by DelRey but the author has made edits and changes for the Bantam Spectra edition.