The Morning Twilight

March 24, 2013

This is the last post about The Broken Lands. The castle gates swing wide. Charmian escapes with the Prisoner’s Stone, and Ekuman also gets out of the fortress, then tries one last time to make himself master of the Elephant.

The chapter opens with the satrap’s surviving wizard. Elslood has time to read the writing on the Prisoner’s Stone before its magic blows the portals of the keep open. The message written on the gray egg-shaped rock is stylistically reminiscent of Ardneh’s threat from the beginning of the book (which was really Indra’s oath, giving all the ways that he would be unable to hurt his enemy). So just as there was an echo of Ardneh’s power when the Thunderstone was used against Ekuman’s fastness, there is another here, when the second stone from the Oasis is also used to pierce the keep.

Although Elslood ends the book as a most pathetic failure—his scheming and his magic both coming to nothing—he does manage to create one more enduring problem for the Free Folk. He gets Charmian out of the castle. First the reader gets another glimpse of her pathetic wickedness (which seems only to be greater in degree than that of the other satraps’ wives and female relations); then she flees in terror, taking a powerful magical artifact with her and leaving Elslood to face her father alone.

If readers had been wondering since chapter 1 why the wizards were so afraid of Ekuman, now they get to find out. It was clear from the beginning of the story that a powerful wizard could kill an ordinary man without too much difficulty; the Old One used telekinesis to bury a knife in a torturer’s throat. Yet Zarf and Elslood were quite terrified of their satrap, because he had been given special powers by the lords of the East in the Black Mountains—Zapranoth and Som the Dead. This is a relatively satisfying explanation for what made Ekuman such a terrible master, but it leaves me wondering how the mundane satrap had been granted the enchantment he uses to punish Elslood for treachery. However, the workings of magic in Saberhagen’s books are rarely explained sufficiently for the reader to do more than puzzle at occurrences such as this.

The croaking and bounding thing that Elslood becomes, tiny and web-footed, is rather reminiscent of Zarf’s toad-like familiar. I’m not certain how definite this association is supposed to seem. Certainly, the thing that was once Elslood is more than a mere amphibian; it remembers that it was once a man, even if its brain and mind are so shrunken that it can no longer recall what is was like to be a man—what it was like to walk upright, to speak, and even to weave magic. However, there are also some fairly significant differences between Zarf’s toad and Elslood’s ultimate form. The familiar is gleefully sadistic, whereas Elslood’s new shape is one of punishment—made all the more poignant by Elslood’s lingering memories of human existence. Zarf’s toad also changes back into something else when it dies, but that reversion leaves it looking even more vile and unnatural than the thing was in life.

Once Elslood is dispensed with, the focus of the action shifts to the last remaining major antagonist—Ekuman himself. The satrap, who avoided serious injury during the lightning strike and has kept himself safe in the upper reaches of the castle since then, recognizes that if he could capture the Elephant, he still might emerge from the bloody battle as a victor. He has preparations for many contingencies. These included the charm he used against Elslood, and they also include the secret escape route that he uses to reach the driverless tank.

Rolf, the beast’s previous master, rushes after the satrap, trying to put another piece of Old World technology to use. Rolf’s natural familiarity with advanced devices shows through again. The final action sequence, with Rolf holding onto the gun barrels atop the nuclear tank and spraying fire extinguisher foam around the turret, while Ekuman tries to shake him off, is pretty exciting. It feels like the kind of worthy one-on-one encounter that would form the climax of a Mission: Impossible-style action film

If you remember the threat Ardneh made in the opening chapter, the form of Ekuman’s death may be no surprise. Ekuman, like the demon Namuci, is smothered with foam at sunrise. Of course, the sea foam of Vedic legend is much less dangerous stuff than the material from the fire extinguisher in the castle. Saberhagen sets up the mode of the satrap’s death quite well; many of the previous facts about the ancient technology lead into what happens. The reader knows that the Elephant has an excellent system for maintaining air circulation, continually drawing in fresh air to breathe. It has also been revealed that the oxygen masks inside the passenger compartment are unusable. Rolf has marveled several times at the ring of cameras located around the rim of the Elephant’s turret, and he’s seen a fire extinguisher in action, producing something that might be thick enough to block the tank’s eyesight. So he has a natural reason to retrieve the device and start spraying the Elephant with it. Fortunately, the foam lasts long enough for him to figure out how he can use the material—neither wet nor dry, bow nor blade nor fist—to lethal effect.

After that, things are pretty much over. None of the books in this series has much winding down action after the climax. In this case, the end of the battle is barely even described. We’re left with two pages of the Free Folk’s exhausted celebration and then their return to work. The Elephant, its rider long since suffocated, sputters and dies after spending the morning submerged in the river. To me, it always feels like a tremendous waste for them to leave the tank there. This was a military engine of incredible power, which the Free Folk could have put to effective use again, if they could only drag it up out of the water. Of course, the absence of other industrial machines is what makes the Elephant such a remarkably powerful artifact, and it is this same absence that makes the vehicle impossible to retrieve.

Next week, we will be reading the first two chapters of The Black Mountains, which may be the best of the three books in this trilogy. There were a number of sequel hooks involving Charmian—her escape with the Stone of Freedom and Rolf’s acquisition of her enchanted hair—in the last chapter of The Broken Lands. They seem a bit awkwardly inserted into the story, actually (especially the bit with Rolf and the yellow locks), but they will help Saberhagen pick up the narrative again in the second volume with a minimum of interruption.


6 Responses to “The Morning Twilight”

  1. Diapadion Says:

    As soon as The Broken Lands ended, I was immediately displeased by the fate of the elephant. I’ve heard a lot of excuses from people, but Saberhagen never explicitly says why the elephant never returns, which is a problem. Maybe he intended to bring it back later, and then scrapped those plans, but what happens is really unsatisfying. He should have caused one of the tread wheels to break or something, that would have been a completely reasonable way to get it out of the picture.

    Also, I’m terrible with dates and times, so happy belated birthday.

    • Buzz Says:

      I think it always made sense to me that the Elephant does not return; I was just disappointed. It’s underwater, and only a great demon or perhaps wizard could pull it out. Actually, now that I’m thinking about it, I wonder why the great magical forces didn’t make more of an effort to dredge it up. Hmm.

      And thanks for the birthday wishes.

      • Diapadion Says:

        It definitely wouldn’t have fit into the Black Mountains. The rebels could bring it along in theory, but it’d be tedious for the characters and the readers to bring it through that terrain. Though it’d be worth it, strategically, so it makes sense to remove it, in spite of the disappointment it causes us.

        The strangest part to me is how unsatisfying Saberhagen’s explanation is, both logically and narratively. Plus, I believe it would have made a powerful statement for the entire elephant to become useless due to a small mechanical failure (and probably impossible to repair via magic). Certainly more meaningful than having it just stuck in the river.

        • Buzz Says:

          Even if the tank weren’t useful for Thomas’s attack on the mountains, it could still have a decisive effect of many smaller engagements. If it stayed around, it could become a major source of conflict, which might be a distraction to the story Saberhagen wanted to tell.

          I do actually like the fact that the Elephant just shuts down automatically in relatively good order. Foam and water may drown a powerful man, but they have no effect on the artifact. Saberhagen may have also wanted to mimic as closely as possible the death of Namuci, which occurred at the waterside.

          • I think the last is probably true, and, yes, it is unsatisfying, but everything in this thread is true, yet has no easy or obvious solution/fix without materially altering the next book. I’d add, though, that the lack of ‘elephant’ in the next book makes it feel a bit less connected to the first story than it might. I wouldn’t mention this, but the three books are overall a bit more loosely connected than they might be, due to Saberhagen’s early tendency to drop characters and such, at times…

            • Buzz Says:

              I am not generally bothered by the rather disconnected nature of the Empire of the East books. However, this is indeed one of the examples where the author completely drops something that I feel ought to be more significant in the later volumes.

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