The Cave

February 10, 2013

Chapter 4 of The Broken Lands finds the heroes Rolf and Thomas perched amidst the rocks of the Broken Mountains. The chapter is written in two parts—the first detailing what the duo sees as they peer down at the villains’ fortress on the other side of the pass, and the second describing how Rolf gains entrance to the chamber of the Elephant. The storytelling thus splits between exposition and action.

At this point in the story, I want to discuss the question of where exactly these events are taking place. We know from the occasional appearances of Old World items (such as Thomas’s binoculars) that this story is taking place in the future of Earth. The ocean lies to the west, with mountains inland, then desert, then more mountains (the forbidding Black Mountains of Som the Dead, first mentioned in this chapter). If we guess or assume (correctly) that the stories take place in North America, the setting must be on the west coast. The climate and the distances described suggest the Pacific Northwest, but where exactly?

In fact, there are Broken Mountains in Washington state. However, this location is rather distant from the Columbia River. The book talks about the River Dolles, which does not exist, to my knowledge. However, The Dalles, Oregon is located at a major bend in the Columbia, the great river of the Pacific Northwest. The Dolles is presumably a tributary. East of the Ekuman’s castle in the Cascades lies the high desert, and the oasis might provide another landmark. However, I’m not so sure that the oasis existed before the dawn of the future age of magic. So I don’t know how much more specifically we can pin down the location.

To observe the castle—and the arrival of the key character of Satrap Chup—Rolf gets to use a pair of binoculars. Saberhagen points out explicitly that Rolf has a natural instinct for ancient technology, which may make him a valuable asset for the forces of the West in the long run. As Rolf watches, we learn a lot more about the habits and ecology of the empire’s flying reptiles, which I always enjoy reading about.

However, one thing about this passage that always takes me out of the story is the mention of Ekuman’s flag. Chup wears the colors of his own Satrapy (in the Seattle-Tacoma area, perhaps?), black and red. Ekuman’s colors are black and bronze, which poses a problem. Black and bronze works as a color scheme for soldier with metallic cuirasses, but I have trouble seeing bronze as a color that can be rendered effectively in cloth. I always find myself wondering what shade Saberhagen really had in mind, and I think this detracts from the story.

The discussion of Thomas’s binoculars makes it clear that there’s a sharp distinction between old technology, from the world of today, and the magic that also permeates Ardneh’s world. The binoculars still work according to the old principles of science, which are apparently unrelated to the new diabolism. For lesser artifacts and powers, there does seem to be no overlap in this world between things that run on science and those powered by magic. However, as the scope of the stories gets broader and the setting moves eastward towards Stargate Command, phenomena appear of greater and greater power; and for some of these, the delineation between the two realms is not so clear.

Eventually, the story moves on to Thomas and Rolf tying to get into the cave of the Elephant. The highlight of this sequence is naturally Rolf’s jump. While I’m sure leaping from one cliff to another, with only a couple of giant birds who could help me along just a little, would be thoroughly terrifying, it’s not tremendously exciting to read. Rolf’s fear comes through, but the scene seemed overly breathless, especially compared with some previous action sequences. What Rolf does later, inside the cave, is logical and important to the later plot, but it’s also fairly pedestrian.

However, things will pick up again next week, when I’ll be discussing the next two chapters. Let’s talk again after the thunderstorm.


3 Responses to “The Cave”

  1. Error in the first clause of the fifth paragraph.

    I don’t think we can reasonably speculate where Chup’s Satrapy is. The closest hint we’re given is probably in the next book: ‘Escaaaaaaped: Charmian of the Broken Lands, Chup of the Northern Provinces!” This could be anywhere in Washington or, say British Columbia.

    The ‘bronze and black’ seems such a minor quibble, but I suppose it’s legitimate; bronze itself can be so many differenc colors, from the washed out silver I’ve seen in arsenical bronze to the red-brown, much like copper, that I tend to think of it as. I think the latter–some version of brown with a bit of red, is the closest you’re likely to get to what ‘bronze’ means in some futuristic heraldry system.

    • Buzz Says:

      I guess the problem with the bronze is that it first appears as part of Ekuman’s wardrobe, and later on the gear of his soldiers. I have no trouble envisioning bronze in that context. In fact, I have a fairly strong expectation for what bronze should look like on an armored man, and it isn’t a hue that I would expect to see rendered in cloth. The absence of bronze as a traditional color in western heraldry, leaves me without any external reference for what to expect from such a color. (But is western heraldry even appropriate? Would Persian heraldry make more sense?)

      I wonder if the bronze of the flag was actually an afterthought; having decided that the Satraps’ personal insignia colors would play a role in the plot, Saberhagen felt he ought to make the heraldic conventions a bit more specific, by giving Ekuman a black and bronze flag. The pairing of black with other colors never seemed to have been thought out that carefully in advance; it varies unpredictably from book to book. The Viceroy Som gets solid black, as the pure Empire color, but the emperor himself uses black and white.

    • Bronze fabric can be accomplished fairly easily with brownish-orangish silk or satin. As long as you get fabric with a bit of shimmer to it, I see nothing unreasonable about rendering a metallic color into cloth.

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