Hear me, Ekuman!

January 27, 2013

Here’s the first installment of our read-along of Empire of the East, covering chapter 1 of book 1 of the trilogy. The first chapter gets going quickly, with dueling wizards and a torturer dying a gruesome but fitting death. So let’s get going.

I noticed that The Broken Lands starts with the bad guys, and I realized that this is a general pattern, with the first chapter of each volume told from the point of view of a villainous character. In this case, the viewpoint character is the story’s primary antagonist, although that’s not always the case. Sometimes the major villain may be too inhuman for his eyes to be an appropriate lens in the opening pages.

The description of the events in the castle dungeon was pretty evocative for me. Ekuman the satrap and his two wizards were each interesting and evil in their own way. Ekuman is clearly a cold, sadistic warlord. Elslood is a rather conventional wizard and threatening in that fashion. (The fact that the princess Charmian is evidently so depraved that she could reflect his wicked spells back at him was, I thought, a very sinister way of illustrating what the text says—that she’s utterly evil.) Zarf was less developed as a character in this chapter; most of his menace comes from the behavior of his wicked little toad familiar (which may be the frog-thing on the back cover?).

I particularly liked the description of the way the magic permeating the atmosphere caused the walls and ceiling seem to pull back. I think this effective because it is something many readers can readily imagine. Macropsia is a relatively common neurological condition (I tend to get it when I’m feverish), in which the visual field seems to expand, making objects seem smaller. A lot of people have experienced at least mild versions of this kind of disorientation, so it is something readers can relate to, psychologically. Yet it’s also something that’s clearly incompatible with the nature of real physical space, which gives it a mystical feeling. Many authors have attempted to evoke similar effects with descriptions of twisted geometry—like Lovecraft with his descriptions of the non-Euclidean geometry of R’lyeh, although I don’t think those worked half as well.

Unfortunately, I’m only a couple pages into the book, and already I’m missing some of the flourishes of the original, unredacted version. Ironically, the passage that I noticed was missing was concerned precisely with the kinds of flourishes not demonstrated by powerful wizards. The revised edition points out that the spells and movements of mages of great power are relatively restrained. The original laid out in more detail the wailing, the use of amulets, and the flurry of movement that would accompany a combat between lesser magicians.

I did still like Saberhagen’s first presentation of this world’s magic. I particularly liked that fact that when the Free Folk leader begins shouting his cryptic threat, everyone listening knows that there is no magic behind it; because if it had been a spell, the other wizards’s spells would have blocked and muffled it.

The threat itself, with its references to Ardneh’s power, is thematically pretty effective. These kinds of words, from many different mouths—other avatars, as Ardneh would put it—are a regular motif for the story. But they begin here, and it occurs to me that the powerful Ardneh, who comes to dominate the story more and more as the trilogy goes on (and becomes the patron of the White Temple in the subsequent Swords novels), may have been named just to make the pun with the Indian god Indra that is presented in the first ten pages. The mythological story of Indra and Namuci provides some interesting foreshadowing, although I’m not certain how much of it Saberhagen intended at this point. Demons and their soul objects become major plot points later in the series, and the image of the lightning god dripping foam onto the back of the demon Namuci is one of the most memorable images of the whole series for me (even though it’s barely described). In the original Vedic mythology, Namuci was a drought demon (identified by Buddhists with Mara, bringer of death). The notion of this demon being slain by the sea froth, against which its nature made it uniquely weak, was not original to Saberhagen (according to folklore, Namuci was beheaded, although it appears to be unclear how Indra decapitated him using foam), but Saberhagen made remarkable use of this bit of real-world mythology as a way of tying his story to the legends of the real Earth.

More generally, Elslood’s research with the book of myths and Ekuman’s thoughts about old technology make it clear that the world of The Broken Lands is ours, but the people inhabit a ruined future. The villains know that there are tales of elephants going all the way back to the ancient days (and the reader is left to wonder whether the animals might still exist in some other part of the world), but it’s not known in Ekuman’s realm whether elephants were real beasts or just myths. (At the same time, the wizards don’t know whether there were real demons in today’s world, a point that is returned to much later in the series.) The old technology will play a crucial role in all three of the Empire of the East books, and there’s evidence of its importance right from the very beginning.

According to my lesson plan, we will be covering chapters 2 and 3 next week. Catch you on the flip side!


3 Responses to “Hear me, Ekuman!”

  1. Interesting comments on magical quasi-‘Macropsia’ and the differences between versions, reminding one of the way Zapranoth’s presence seems to distort space and time by mere proximity in the second book.

    As good as it is to see the redactions picked apart bit by bit, I’m glad you’re speeding up a bit next week.

  2. I also liked the idea of magical battles distorting normal 3D perception (or perhaps even reality). It’s a great concept to think about.

    One thing that bothered me in this chapter was that right off the bat they point out that Ekuman and Ardneh were inversions of Indra and Namuci. And not just pointed out by referring to the ancient story, but REALLY MADE SURE THE READER NOTICED by explicitly stating the fact. I like a little bit more subtlety in my fiction, and when things are spelled out that blatantly and that early, it doesn’t indicate that this is a story I will want to read repeatedly.

    I’m going to be interested to see how much the rest of the story sticks to that theme, or whether it was just a one-off.

    Also the gibbering toad pissed me off for some reason. WTF, yo.

    • Buzz Says:

      It does get a bit heavy handed in some places like this. This is definitely one of the less subtle parts of the story, however. I remember it feeling a bit heavy handed from the first time I read the book.

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