The Two Stones and Chup

February 24, 2013

I definitely like this part of the book, yet it nonetheless feels a bit like the story is marking time before the awesome return of the Elephant. I get this feeling every time I go through the story. The first time, I kept asking, “When are they going to get back to the Elephant?” On later readings, it’s, “I can’t wait til they get back to the Elephant.” There’s a lot of key character development here, but I still find myself hankering for more of the nuclear-powered tank. And I love elephants.

(I can’t remember whether my long-standing fascination with elephants arose before or after I first read this story. At around the same age—six or seven—I had a close encounter with Tombi, the baby African elephant at the zoo in Lansing, Michigan. She was very even tempered, as the zoo camp kids fed her in her enclosure. Her building had been constructed for a smaller Indian elephant, and she eventually outgrew it and moved to Indianapolis, where I happened upon her by chance two decades later with my wife and daughter. The peak of my fascination with elephants came later, in college, after we watched “The Elephants of Tsavo”—a beautiful but unintentionally humorous documentary about a place that’s much more famous for its man-eating lions.)

The encounter in the desert with the mirage plant is the highlight of these two chapters. I like real-world carnivorous flora, almost as much as pachyderms, and this is a really terrifying futuristic mutant version. The false pool is a physically sensible illusion, produced by the variation in the index of refraction of light across a rapid temperature gradient—the same way real watery mirages are produced in the desert. It’s an unusually hard bit of science fiction in what is generically a very soft SF story—although I wonder now how Thomas could have understood of the illusion worked.

In any case, the plant is a very effective natural hazard. The transition from a still pool—irregularly ringed with lesser plants, living there at the sufferance of the illusion’s master, in order to enhance the deception—to the mass of grasping, horny tendrils, surrounded by a strew of small animal bones, is distinctly scary. Moreover, the encounter provides a very natural way of introducing the Prisoner’s Stone, along with Olanthe’s full description of the Oasis.

Olanthe is really the first interesting female character in the story. So far, Charmian has only been observed—by Rolf and Elslood—from a distance; Manka barely appeared; and Sarah has shown no real traits beyond an attractive adolescent feistiness. Olanthe has already been developed more fully than any of them. We learn about her native culture and her initial uncertainty about helping the stranger Thomas. Then she artfully maneuvers to take the riskier job in facing the plant for herself, leaving Thomas rather befuddled. Finally, we learn why she and the other folk from the Oasis of the Two Stones (and incidentally, Thomas’s quip about the Oasis of the Dozen Stones is rather memorable) have reason to hate the Empire and so could be valuable to the Free Folk.

Chapter 8 covers events around the castle, with the point of view moving several times—from Ekuman, to Chup, to Rolf. The sequence of characters grows increasingly heroic and relatable, and this serves an important plot purpose by drawing a clear distinction between Ekuman and Chup. Both the satraps are villains, but their personalities are totally different. Saberhagen points out repeatedly, both in chapters 1 and 8, how much Ekuman enjoys holding power over others—his sadistic glee from having others quailing in fear before him. (Satrap Ekuman would have understood exactly what O’Brien meant when the told Winston Smith, “We are the priests of power.”) Chup, on the other hand, sees humans as being fundamentally of value—to be used, certainly, but not merely as objects to torment. He is cynical, but he respects drive and courage. When Rolf stepped forward to challenge him, Chup instantly respected him. Ekuman could never respect anything but power—the power of Som the Dead and the other lords of the East. And Chup, we learn, has never actually been to the East to pledge his service to the evil viceroy.

There’s a lot of intrigue surrounding Ekuman’s court, of which we’ll learn more in subsequent chapters. Next week will cover chapters 9 and 10.


2 Responses to “The Two Stones and Chup”

  1. The mirage plant was pretty cool. Aside from being baffled by the coincidence of the stone happening to land in the middle of it (seriously? all that desert, and you manage find the most dangerous thing to drop your magic rock?), it was a really neat incident.

    • Buzz Says:

      The coincidence of it bothered me a bit also. In fact, there are two coincidences that occur, one for each of the magic stones. (As I typed the last words of that sentence, I couldn’t help but hear Konk saying, “I hate magic stones!”) First, Thomas happens upon the reptile’s corpse, revealing the Thuderstone; then the Thunderstone gets tossed into the mirage plant’s pit, which forces Olanthe to reveal the Stone of Freedom. In retrospect, I think coincidences like these are supposed to be the work of Ardneh, but they do seem a little weak as they are happening.

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