The Tall Broken Man and The Duel

March 31, 2013

The Black Mountains starts with a demon, which completely dominates the first scene. Chup, broken in body but still strong in mind, kowtows miserably before it. It forces its loathsome appearance into Chup’s mind, for no reason, it seems, except to demonstrate its power. The demon could destroy Chup with barely an effort, and it would punish his mockery harshly—even at the risk of angering the even darker masters who sent it on its errand. It is simply evil incarnate.

The opening of the book is extremely well written. However, it is a little disappointing that Saberhagen reuses the macropsia effect. Reading the volumes back to back, the repetition is quite noticeable. It is consistent as a description of the sensory effects of a magic-laden environment. However, the imagery is less evocative the second time around.

This scene, with the first appearance of a true demon, marks a change in the character of the books. From this point onward, the demons of the East will dominate the story more and more. While there will be a couple more of Loford’s scene-stealing elementals, it’s the demons (along with the Old World technology) that will drive the plot. This volume will focus more on the question of how to fight demons, while Changeling Earth addresses their nature and significance in the cosmogony of this far future fantasy world.

I wonder whether Saberhagen had this shift in mind when he was writing The Broken Lands. It seems a little odd that an element of this world that will turn out to be so fundamental should be entirely absent from the first third of the trilogy. On the other hand, the absence does give the story a sense of verisimilitude that carefully honed narratives often lack. In the real world, important happenings are not always foreshadowed well in advance. I have praised Saberhagen before for defying narrative conventions and dropping characters from the story once they were no longer relevant to the main thrust of the plot. What I’m talking about here is the same thing, done in reverse. Demons do not appear in the story at all, until their role in the plot becomes crucial.

After the demon leaves, the action shifts to this book’s other main character, the hero Rolf. Rolf is still looking for his adopted sister, and he receives his first substantive clue as to her whereabouts in a vision that is facilitated by Loford’s brother—the even mightier wizard who goes by the pseudonym “Gray.” This is the first time in the trilogy that it’s mentioned explicitly that a wizard needs to be careful about using his real name. (This notion was hinted at in the first book, however. It’s not clear whether “Zarf” and “Elslood” were personal names or aliases. Loford appears to go by “The Big One” professionally, and the leader of the Free Folk was simply called “The Old One”; Ekuman’s wizards never managed to pry out his real name, and if the Free Folk leaders knew it, it was never revealed.) The notion of magic users needing to safeguard their true names is a pretty common fantasy trope. In Earthsea, knowing the true name of a foe is the one sure way to master an enemy wizard, or devil, or dragon; only a wizard’s most trusted confidants could ever know his true name. In Andre Norton’s Witch World, nobody could ever be permitted to know the names of the witches. (I admit, however, I’m not sure what consequences this has for the story. It turns out that you may never actually have the stomach to finish the book you started reading on the morning you went in for minor surgery.)

The most memorable part of the vision that Gray shows Rolf is the depiction of the six kidnappers’ present conditions. The black riders reappear, mounted as they were at the time of the raid on Rolf’s farmstead, but the are now shown, each according to his current status. For most of them, that means dead—and in varying degrees of decomposition. The skeletal riders, some still impaled by the weapons that slew them, make for a powerful image. The image also feels very natural as an element of a prophetic dream; it is eerie and dwells on the dirty boundary between the living and unliving worlds, just as dreams and visions appear to wander along similar astral boundaries. The leader of the six—Tarlenot, we later learn his name is—is still alive, and the odd message about him: “He will be slain, and he will live,” can hardly be anything except foreshadowing of preternatural events to come.

Tarlenot’s name seems to be an allusion to the British officer Banstre Tarleton, whom I hadn’t known anything about during my previous readings of The Black Mountains. Tarleton was known for his cruelty and brutality during the American Revolution, until his humiliating pounding at the Battle of the Cowpens. Tarleton was also a vocal supporter of the slave trade, but that may have had mostly to do with the economic interests of his hometown of Liverpool. Whether Saberhagen was aware of this specific aspect of Tarleton’s character is unknown. However, it seems pretty unlikely, given the author’s known habit of making allusions to historical military figures, that the similarity in names between Tarleton and Tarlenot could be a coincidence. I may have more to say about this connection as the book proceeds.

While the first chapter is very impressive, the second is less thrilling. Rolf seems rather foolish and gullible, taking the former satrap into the desert—just the two of them. Even if he could not have anticipated how Chup’s legs had been healed, Rolf might have been more wary of a ruse. On the other hand, Rolf only consulted Chup because an eldritch power instructed him to. Gray identified that power as a wielder of lightning, and Rolf may have recognized that meant Ardneh—his personal deity, whose avatar he had already been. Perhaps the whole escape was a part of Ardneh’s grand plan. Ardneh is a far-seeing protective entity; its sense organs may be as numerous and widely spaced as the radar stations for a North American missile defense shield. Whatever its true capabilities, Ardneh can certainly see ends that are hidden from ordinary humans.

Once the characters do get out into the waste, the reader learns some interesting things. These include the precise identity of Tarlenot and the details of Chup’s last odd encounter with the him. While Rolf might think little of Chup’s story, it’s hard for the reader to dismiss the tale he tells; it is too obviously foreshadowing of events to come. Moreover, having seen the demon in the first chapter—which can clearly take a humanoid shape when it wants to materialize fully—we are naturally left wondering about the great dark figure from Chup’s dream. Was it really a dream, or was Chup awake to witness the coming of some powerful spirit? More likely, it was probably somewhere in between—the visitation real, but strictly on another plane accessible only during sleep.

We also learn that Chup’s time as a paralyzed beggar has evidently done much to humanize him. While Chup was never as vile a character as Ekuman (or probably the other satraps), his attitude toward life seems to have progressed quite a bit since the end of The Broken Lands. He still has his lust for power, but he chooses not to kill Rolf, even though doing so would probably make his escape easier. Part of the reason Chup spares Rolf seems to be that he respects him—for Rolf is the young man who rode the Elephant; but Chup would never have refrained from killing—much less decided to conceal and protect—a dangerous foe before.

The next two chapters will continue Chup’s story, and Rolf’s. We will take them up next week.


4 Responses to “The Tall Broken Man and The Duel”

  1. What is macropsia? To what effect are you referring?

    • Buzz Says:

      It’s the visual effect of increasing apparent distance in some or all of the visual field. Saberhagen used it in the opening chapter of The Broken Lands, and it was discussed here.

      • More remarkable, to me, has always been the presence of the dark figure in Chup’s ‘dream,’ and the way, by the weight and power of its metaphysical presence, it seems to distort the reality around it, bending the ground beneath it, a little like the stones of a doorway seem to stretch higher to let Hermes into a room in the quasi-sequel ‘The Second Book of Swords,’ though that bit is more ambiguous and probably more a result of direct (if automatic) divine magic, rather than just -presence-.

        • Buzz Says:

          I haven’t thought about that scene with Hermes in a long time, but I remember that I was impressed with the way that the over-sized Hermes (including his hands, which were huge but perfectly formed, unlike those of the demon of the sixth ward) clearly doesn’t have room to fit into the room, yet fit he does. In contrast, I don’t find the image of the dark warrior in Chup’s “dream” to be particularly affecting, as such descriptions go.

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