In chapter 9, “Before the Citadel,” Zapranoth is held at bay while the forces of the West fight Som’s guard. It has a very cinematic feel, but for some reason, I didn’t find it all that effective on this reading. I know that the next two chapter are more exciting, and I honestly found my self waiting to get to Draffut, who I find the most compelling of the three Lords of the Black Mountains.

The action picks up after the destruction of Yiggul and Kion, with the arrival of Zapranoth on the battlefield. The human fighting takes up a lot of the chapter, but I don’t find it especially memorable. After the first counterattack by the citadel guard is beaten back, attention is focused on the Demon Lord. At first, both Loford and his brother Gray are working to hold Zapranoth back, until the demon starts to sneer at the wizards—the first time since Chup’s dream in chapter 2 that we’ve heard his voice. That voice, and the malicious power it carries, seem to be enough to push Loford out of the fight, leaving only Gray to hold the Demon Lord back.

Gray summons up another elemental in this chapter, but I didn’t find it especially impressive. First come rough gusts of wind, then a storm that sweeps in to attack Zapranoth. I did like the image of an almost planar bank of cloud, moving unnaturally toward the citadel. However, when the wind arrives, the descriptions of it don’t really seem all that effective. I didn’t get a visceral feel for the wind whipping at the fighters while they closed and fought. Moreover, later in the chapter, Saberhagen describes Zapranoth as a thundercloud, which I think was a mistake. It makes the air elemental and the much mightier Demon Lord seem too similar, possibly diminishing the effectiveness of both images.

One image that is more affecting is Gray, facing off against the Demon Lord and seeming to age before his allies’ eyes, as the conflict saps his strength. Eventually, the wizard almost loses contact with everything around him except for his psychic wrestling with Zapranoth. Thomas orders fighters to prop the master wizard up on his feet, so he can hold the demon back as long as possible. But when Gray finally comes around to understand that Thomas is talking to him, all he has to say is that the defensive magic is about to fail, and Gray may die along with it. After that, Rolf finds it no longer possible even to look directly at the hazy, incorporeal shape of the Demon Lord.

When Zapranoth is ultimately released to fight, the effects are not quite as startling as I was expecting. He devours things, including the West’s warriors and the technology djinn. It’s a nice image, when his previously incorporeal shape, which the valkyries flew through without even seeming to notice, grows gigantic snapping jaws to swallow up the djinn. In other respects, Zapranoth’s presence is described (as I already noted) as being like a thunderstorm, and just being near him causes a number of the balloons to burst. Still, he doesn’t overpower the assaulting army on his own, at least not immediately. Even the mundane defeat of men with swords is something that requires his time and engagement. As the Zapranoth breaks free of Gray’s barriers, the arrival of the bulk of Thomas’s army is still an important strategic development. The Demon Lord isn’t able to entrap the whole attacking force, and so Rolf manages to get his balloons aloft again and over the walls of the citadel proper.

Inside, he sees what he’s come here looking for—his sister Lisa, who has evidently been hiding in plain sight all along. Chup’s realization about her identity was was made him conclude that he needed to see Draffut, which he does in the next chapter. However, before I get to that, I wanted to point out that, even with the battle raging, we still haven’t actually seen Som’s power to resist death. Rolf glimpses the viceroy briefly as the balloon fleet sails over the walls of the citadel. Som is recognizable because he has no fear; he will fight back the forces of the West on his own if need be. When his men flee, he stays behind, no doubt cursing them for their cowardice. However, we will have to wait until the last chapter of The Black Mountains to see what happens when someone actually turns a weapon against Som.

In the meantime, the penultimate chapter, “Lake of Life” is short but really quite remarkable. Chup finally meets the Beast Lord Draffut and learns about the nature of the valkyries and bit of the history of his world. It includes the first real description of the Old World’s waning days (from somebody old enough to remember—although not necessarily understand—what happened). There was a great war (which is no real surprise to the reader), and all the humans working at the Lake abandoned it in a mad rush.

Chup regains consciousness submerged in the healing liquid. Then the scene with Chup’s head looking down at the rest of his body is impressive and rather eerie. The fluid rolls beneath him, described vividly like a sort of transparent rainbow. There’s no blood in Chup’s arteries as the great arm of the Beast Lord pulls him out of the water, just the miraculously lit fluid, which both nourishes Chup’s brain and heals his injuries. It’s an impressive vista. I can share some of Chup’s amazement, although I as a reader can also easily imagine how the healing process might sometimes go wrong, with body parts not getting knit back together quite correctly.

Unlike much of the Old World technology that appears in the series, the material of the Lake of Life is completely unlike anything that real-world technology has wrought. It is astoundingly more advanced than the Elephant or any other vehicles. In fact, the Lake seems to have more in common with the magic of the latter days than the human technology of yore. Perhaps its power is a mixture of the scientific and the mystical—like the djinn also mixed knowledge of the Old World with conjuring feats that can only exist in the new. The water is not merely biologically active. It has affected Draffut, turned him into the intelligent, bipedal lord that he is; however, it also acted in similar fashion on “his” healing machines. The robots that ministered to the injured have become something between alive and dead. They may need the Lake of Life to sustain them, but they have developed an independence, minds of a sort, while they work along the shores of the rippling Lake.

Draffut, unlike the machines, is autonomous. He is intelligent, but he is bound here and effectively bound in service to Som’s guards by what he is, or was. Although I understand what Saberhagen was trying to portray, I find the nature of his consciousness rather difficult to comprehend or imagine. Somewhere, deep beneath his massive intelligence, remain the instinctual personality of a dog. He is permanently imprinted on mankind, and so he cannot intentionally harm a person. Yet at the same time, he has taken the beasts of the mountains—not the usual allies either of humans or domestic dogs—under his protection as well. Chup’s kindness to the furry beast that was being tortured by the demons under Som’s citadel is what brought the former satrap to Draffut’s attention in the first place. Draffut is truly a remarkable character, although I feel Saberhagen mishandled him later, especially in The Third Book of Swords.

I have always wondered whether Draffut’s name was supposed to mean anything special. I’m not certain whether it’s supposed to be reminiscent of one of the “classic” North American dog names. (I have a vivid memory from childhood of Suzanne Pleshette rattling off a list of such trite monikers in the The Ugly Dachshund. Her character disapproved of them, and I was hurt that my favorite dog name, “Butch” was on the list. However, decades later, I eventually did get a dog and did name him “Butch.”) Is “Draffut” supposed to be derived from “Dr. Ruff”? Is there some other wordplay I’m missing, or is there no connection there at all?

Next week, the Knife of Fire is in your head!

Seriously, why isn’t I Am Legend more famous? I don’t mean the movie starring Will Smith, naturally, but rather the original novel my Richard Matheson.

It’s certainly a well respected book among some science fiction and horror fans; it often tops lists of the greatest zombie stories. Yet I remember that many of the serious readers who hung around the MIT Science Fiction Society library when I was in college had never even heard of it. And it has been adapted for film three time, although essentially as conventional vampire/zombie apocalypse flicks. The post-apocalyptic world of the undead was something of a novel idea when Matheson published the book in 1954, but (in part thanks to inspiration from I Am Legend itself), it’s pretty well-known trope now. None of the movie versions actually used the elements that make the novel so remarkable, although the producers of the Will Smith version originally intended to keep Matheson’s ending, which explains why it’s called “I Am Legend.”

In fact, despite the past few years’ cultural obsession with zombies, I haven’t encountered anyone except hard-core science fiction fans who are familiar with Matheson’s work. The recent interest in zombie apocalypse stories even produced a literary mash-up of the zombie genre with Pride and Prejudice. I couldn’t stomach more than a couple chapters of that. Making my way through the zombie-fighting passages, I was just waiting and hoping for it to get back to Austen’s real prose. I suppose there has to be something said for having the nerve to combine momentarily trendy elements of classic literature and current mass entertainment topics—and getting people to take it seriously as… something. I suppose the equivalent in the 1970s would have been rewriting the Ramayana so that the ten-headed demon king Ravana was trying to take over a major international airport. In the 1960s, Thoreau would have been going to Walden to infiltrate an international spy ring.

Matheson’s novel actually has a rather refined literary form. The story follows Robert Neville’s frame of consciousness. He starts out ignorant but brutally effective in keeping alive. Yet he asks questions—about how a vampire who was Jewish or Muslim in life would respond to a cross, or why the vampires think they can fly. After years alone as seemingly the last human on the planet, he develops into a masterly hunter, and scientist capable of answering his earlier querries, and something else. He’s also has an iconically American character—not so much so as Huckleberry Finn or Jay Gatsby, but still a remarkable embodiment of the national character.

Chapter 7 tells of the Free Folk’s ascent to Som’s cliffside fortress. Rolf and Gray have more or less perfected their airships, but they’re hardly the best tactical devices. I found Gray’s explanation of why the West was not going to use the djinn to manufacture a supply of technological invasion materiel a bit weak. Even if the djinn is in mortal danger in the coming battle, I don’t see why they shouldn’t make the best use of its skills beforehand. If the djinn could make a dozen Elephants and a helicopter gunship or two, the West’s advantage would be utterly overwhelming. Such tanks and aircraft are known to work in this post-apocalyptic world—even if fifth-generation fighter interceptors might not.

The upshot is that they are stuck at the technological level of helium balloons. This makes for a pretty neat scene as Rolf and Gray are managing the ascent. I have to say though, even knowing how the book ends, I find the Free Folk’s plan pretty far fetched. Yet they make it to the top and overcome the first round of guardsmen—who they know to behead and separate from their collars.

The defenses get into motion, and then Gray reveals the objects that contain the lives of the powerful demons Yiggul and Kion—the second and third mightiest under Som’s command. The demons are brought up short. It appears that demons are unable to harm someone who is holding their life object, so long as the holder’s attention is focused on the object and the process of destroying it. The two enemies are destroyed, each in a way that matches what Gray is doing to ruin the soul container. Gray uses some incantations as he pares down Yiggul’s plant and melts Kion’s bauble. I wonder how much commonality there was between the two spells he used. Do the same mystic words work, if you slot in the right demon’s name in the correct location? Or is there a special incantation for each one, which a wizard might tease out, once he has the monster’s life in his hands?

This is, in my opinion, the best part of the entire trilogy. The notion of demons hiding their essences in inanimate objects is not especially original. But the way the monsters are put to death, ripping apart or burning down as their soul jars are destroyed, was just amazing. There are more things that I wonder about in this scene. Is the form a demon’s death takes unique, part of that demon’s makeup? Or maybe the manner in which a demon’s physical form is destroyed is just determined by the shape and composition of its soul jar. Actually, the two may not be entirely different; different demons may have natural affinities different classes of objects. (We learn in the next chapter that Zapranoth’s power appears to have a particular affinity for hair.)

This is not Saberhagen’s most polished writing, but the events described are too fascinating for me to forget. Since the very first time I read this, I have wished I could incorporate the idea into some fantasy creation of my own. I read another four and a half books in this setting, and every time a demon appeared, I was hoping that the heroes would recover its soul object and put it to death like that.

Demons like Yiggul and Kion must be uncommon, with just two or three of them allocated to a sizable region of North America. They are known by name—and not merely to demonologiists. Of course, it’s hard to know what that means, quantitatively; and people’s perceptions of how notorious real-world people and events are turn out to be extremely unreliable. (Donald Rumsfeld famously had no idea which members of Al Qaeda regular members of the American public had heard of. People can be really bad at estimating renown; estimating it falls afoul of several simultaneous cognitive biases.) So I don’t typically trust authors to show sensible levels of notoriety for people or events. (Agatha Christie was especially bad in this regard, I think.)

Gray can drive off or slay all the vassal demons of the Black Mountains. The wizard does not, however, possess the life force of Zapranoth. That Demon Lord has just zoomed up his pit, passing Chup and Charmian, whose most recent adventures are the subject of chapter 8.

As the demons rush past the pair in the pit, Chup remembers how much he hates those purely evil entities. He’s spent most of this book playing multiple angles, but the passing of the demons—the great Lord Zapranoth, in particular—evidently convinces him that, whoever he eventually allies with, it will not be the East. Chup tells himself, now and back in chapter 6, that he doesn’t want to turn Charmian over to the things at the bottom of the pit because it’s contrary to his forthright, warrior nature. That certainly seems to be part of it, but he also has an unaccountable soft spot for his off-and-on wife, and I keep wondering why.

Charmian, naturally, turns out to be just about the vilest human character in the whole story. (Zapranoth is worse, and, honestly Som probably is too, although I don’t know if the viceroy counts as human.) We eventually learn why she recognizes Zapranoth’s lair, but somehow, the foreshadowing of her returning memory didn’t really work that well for me. I get that her recollections didn’t come abruptly rushing back. They came gradually, triggered by her second visit to the demon pit, but somehow the returning memories don’t seem to flow the way they really should. It’s hard to put my finger on what bothers me about this, but it just doesn’t feel right.

However, once they were fully returned, the princess’s memories were eerily fascinating to read . After she sacrifices her sister and Zapranoth strokes her hair with his darkly glowing hand, Charmian runs after her father Ekuman, and I did like the fact that he was evidently terrified that the ritual had not gone correctly—since that would probably make his own life forfeit.

I also really like the end of the chapter. Chup and Charmian are trapped on a secluded ledge, with the long cleft below them. Then a little furry animal delivers a personal invitation from Draffut, Lord of Beasts. I have to wonder: what kind of animal is it? A squirrel? A pika? Saberhagen rarely identifies the animals in his trilogy. Soldiers are mounted on “riding beasts,” and they transport cargo on “load beasts.” Are they horses? Oxen? The Silent People who feature so prominently in The Broken Lands are never called owls, or even described in sufficient detail to identify them as such. I suppose Saberhagen wanted to distance Ardeh’s world from our own; we don’t know whether the creatures the characters encounter are like ones we could see today, or whether they are distorted somehow, by magic or mutation, or genetically engineered chimeras first bred in another age. The gargantuan centipedes are an exception to Saberhagen’s vagueness on this point, but those monsters are already quite unlike, in size if nothing else, the lesser poisonous arthropods of our own time.

Of course, Chup needs to hitch a ride on a valkyrie, which will only pick up men wearing the collars. Unless, Chup has ascertained, the wearer has actually been beheaded. (I think that there was more discussion of this point in some earlier scenes in the original version of the novel, but that they were trimmed for the omnibus edition.) So they’ve got a collar from a dead guardsmen, and if Chup’s headless body looks to the helicopter like it belongs with the metal ring, it will be Chup who gets ferried away to be healed and put back together. That’s definitely an unpleasant prospect, especially when the beheading needs to be completed by the untrustworthy and not very competent Charmian, and Saberhagen does a good job of conveying the resolve and apprehension Chup feels in the last moments before his wife decapitates him.

We will pick up next week with two more chapters, including Chup’s visit to the Lake of Life.

The Reveal in Fantasy

April 16, 2013

A lot of good fiction involves mysteries and surprises. Sometimes this works, but the nature of fantasy fiction changes what is allowed in the resolution of a puzzle. This can open up new creative possibilities, but it also introduces new potential difficulties.

I just finished reading The Curse of Chalion, which my brother recommended as one of the best recent contributions to the fantasy genre. The plot is more about politics and intrigue than magic, although, in a way, this actually one of the story’s greatest strengths. It is a major theme that the gods’ magic can only enter the material world through living souls, so the eponymous curse manifests itself through madness, internecine violence, and political instability. The mystery of the curse is revealed only slowly, but eventually the protagonist receives news of a key prophecy—which sounds, initially, like something the hero could actually fulfill, albeit with great difficulty.

I think the reader is supposed to be mystified as to how the hero, Lupe dy Cazaril, is going to pull it off (by giving his life three times), right up until he actually succeeds; dy Cazaril himself certainly is. Unfortunately, when the last clue to the puzzle was revealed (coming utterly out of left field), I could immediately see how things were going to shake out. The only question left unresolved was whether the hero would manage to survive the whole ordeal or not. This made the ending fall a bit flat, although it was still a very enjoyable read; the mystery was just too easy.

Another example, where the reveal is carried off a bit better, occurred at the climax of The Return of the King. There was not exactly a mystery, in that I hadn’t been wondering how Frodo and Samwise would manage to destroy the One Ring, once they reached the Chambers of Fire. However, there was still a sudden surprise in that climactic encounter, which had been hinted at before, even if I had been too obtuse to notice them. (I regret that I am not actually talking about my experiences while reading the book; I first encountered the ending of Tolkien’s story in subsidiary media. I imagine that the effect would be similar for first-time reader, but I would be interested to hear if other people had different experiences.) Beside the Cracks of Doom, Frodo reveals that no Ring-bearer (or at least none that have carried the artifact for as long as he) could willingly destroy the Ring. What makes this effective is that it’s logical yet unanticipated. There’s an understandable human drama underlying what happens to Frodo and Gollum, who are both overcome by their lust for the Ring. The effect is certainly enhanced by the magic

Sometimes mysteries are resolved in a way that may be logical within the confines of the world’s cosmology, yet it relies on details of the magic system that are not familiar to the reader in the same way that they are to residents of the fantasy world. This can work, provided the rules of magic are spelled out early enough in the story for the reader to get a feeling of familiarity for them. In A. E. van Vogt’s The World of Ā (which is nominally science fiction but in many respects might as well be fantasy), there is discovered to be a strange new law of physics, which means that whenever two things are similar to twenty decimals places (whatever that means, exactly), energy will start flowing from one to the other. This applies to human beings and their minds as much as to anything else, which the hero learns after his consciousness is made to start hopping from one cloned body to another. In the end, it’s revealed that many of the key characters are also clones of the same original mastermind, which is quite surprising; yet it makes sense in terms of the rules of the new “magic” the author has introduced. (I should say that there are two more sequels, but I never managed to get through them, so I don’t know whether van Vogt managed to keep the story interesting for an entire trilogy. Although the fact that I gave up reading the second book suggests that he probably didn’t.)

However, if the reader doesn’t have enough time to get used to the rules of an alternate universe, a reveal that relies on these rules can be a huge letdown. It’s pretty disappointing if a wizard just walks in and explains, “Of course the demon died when he came into contact with monkey saliva. Monkey saliva is the key to the inner-outer void of life and brilliance.” That’s pretty much what happens in many older pulp fantasy (and science fiction) stories, which is too bad.

Chup’s adventures in and under Som’s citadel occupy chapters 5 and 6 or The Black Mountains. Since the story picks up immediately after Chup’s discovery that his rival Tarlenot lives again, Charmian needs to provide some exposition, which is further supplemented by Chup’s conversations with the men of Som’s guard. We learn just a bit about the functioning of the valkyries, which bear wounded and dead men back up the mountain to be healed by Lord Draffut. The guardsmen need to wear the Old World collars if they are to be picked up by the valkyries, but Draffut apparently owes no particular loyalty to Som. Indeed, Som or some predecessor as viceroy first came here to be near to Draffut, who gave out the collars and the valkyries’ succor without regard to East or West. This naturally makes a reader wonder why such apparently altruistic largesse is wasted on the Empire’s forces. In fact, the ability of the guardsmen to regenerate rapidly from injury or death may be a greater advantage in their defense of Som’s citadel than the fortress’s position high atop the cliffs. Even if such regeneration is imperfect (and a few pages later, Chup encounters a pair of men who were apparently not healed as completely as Tarlenot), Draffut’s aid is incredibly valuable to the powers of the East.

Charmian has a plan, which appears to be to pass ownership of the love charm to the High Lord Som. This doesn’t sound like an especially promising strategy—a minor (if nonetheless unaccountably powerful) magical charm versus a man who has command over one of the mightiest demons of the East. Oh course, the charm still works perfectly well on Chup, and it’s a bit creepy the way Charmian, who obviously has no regard whatsoever for her husband, grudgingly permits him to “have his way” with her. It’s actually noticeable that these books always stop a little short of overt sex. Nudity, “having his way,” and even implied rape are there, but nothing quite explicit. (In the third book, there is actually an explicit reason why some of the characters don’t have sex, although even there, I don’t think it’s every discussed explicitly as a prohibition on “sex.”)

Charmian’s plan entails Chup sneaking the charm into Som’s extremely well-guarded treasury. The three types of guardians Chup must face follow a rather traditional fantasy progression. First there are human guards, who can be bribed or fought as needed (and it turns out that both bribery and combat are required in this instance). Then there is an dangerous animal—a giant, poisonous, creepy-crawly thing, like the spider in Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant,” which I pointed out features a similar progression of hazards for would-be thieves to face. Finally, there are the truly eldritch guardians—seven quite minor ones in this case, which are not that challenging to deal with, since Chup knows the passwords. If an evil lord’s abundant hoard weren’t guarded by multiple layerings of minions in this way, that would actually be a subversion of the conventions of the fantasy genre. However, there’s still plenty of freedom, even within the genre conventions, to make things creative. Saberhagen himself actually returns to a similar scenario in The Second Book of Swords—which features a total of seven wards protecting the great treasure of the Blue Temple. That’s an very interesting story—my favorite of the several Swords books that I read—but it has some serious shortcomings as well.

The real standout in this episode from The Black Mountains was, for me, the giant centipede. I don’t like centipedes in real life. Their knobbly bodies and thick jointed legs give me the creeps. It doesn’t help that I know they’re predators, and poisonous in varying degrees. (Millipedes, on the other hand, I generally find rather cute. They are slow moving, smooth, and herbivorous. Once, at a children’s museum, I let a millipede almost two feet long walk down my arm, because my daughter wanted me to.) In fantasy, giant centipedes are conventional if not particularly commonly occurring monsters. Honestly however, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a giant centipede in fiction that I found particularly affecting—except this one. (Giant centipedes are also pretty common monsters in Dungeons & Dragons, and although I know my player characters have faced off against them numerous times, I never found them very compelling in the gaming context either.) I think the issue is that my discomfort with centipedes is a very sensory phenomenon; what bothers me is how they look and how I imagine they would feel against my skin. Chup’s adventure with the captive centipede doesn’t really start to move me until he has to wrestle with the monster, gripping its poison-barbed tail and carrying its long body, covered in countless scritching legs, across his shoulders. The idea of doing that is too viscerally discomfiting to be ignored.

Unlike the centipede, the demons in this chapter are rather minor barriers (at least to one who knows the daily incantations). Asleep (and apparently fully corporeal), they are a lot less threatening than the demon from the first chapter—although the reader is informed that, were they awake, they would be much nastier than the mindless centipede. In effect, Chup’s interaction with the demons is mostly a chance for him to rescue the little furry creature one of them had been tormenting. This serves to remind the reader that Chup is not a sadist, unlike the demons or their master Som. This is the very trait of Chup’s that Som sets out to remedy in the next chapter.

As soon as he disposes of the the hair charm, passing its ownership to Som, Chup is freed from the enchantment that had bound him to Charmian. It’s interesting to contrast his earlier befuddled behavior, from when he was completely dominated by the lust for his wife, with his newfound clarity. Saberhagen follows Chup’s thought processes as the former satrap tries to get an accurate assessment of what he’s gotten himself entangled in. There is a rapid a string of realizations, as Chup’s renewed rationality rapidly raises and addresses all the unsavory questions that ought to have occurred to him earlier—culminating in the revelations that Charmian has sent him to the vault to die and that the disfigured guards are to be accomplices in his murder. What follows is his impressive job grappling with the arthropod.

After Chup’s escape, he finally gets to meet Som. Charmian has met him before, but not for a personal audience. Som evidently has the same kind of sadistic streak as Ekuman, and he hits the former princess in one of the few areas where she is truly vulnerable, threatening to take away her youthful appearance.

By the time Chup gets back to the villa (after dropping in on Charmian’s audience), it’s swarming with Som’s secret police. With black uniforms and skull insignia, they are obviously supposed to be reminiscent of the organs of Nazi Germany—the black-garbed Geheime Staatspolizei and the Schutzstaffel, with their totenkopf emblem. Unlike the Third Reich however, the police state governed by Som and his emperor appears to have a substantial number of female operatives, including in supervisory positions. Along with the most murderous aspects of their ideology, the Nazis also favored ultraconservative social policies, and there were essentially no women at all in their hierarchy. Som’s secret police are more egalitarian, apparently—like the Cheka.

Chup intervenes to save Charmian’s mistreated servants from a full grilling by the viceroy’s security apparatus. The secret police appear only briefly in this story, but they seem rather businesslike to me. In contrast, it soon turns out that Som’s sadism is actually a job requirement. In order to win Som’s lasting favor, Chup needs to do something “small and mean,” as he puts it. While this might come naturally to a man like Ekuman, it is rather contrary to Chup’s nature. He’s the kind of warrior who wants to look an enemy in the face and engage them in a fair fight. I noticed that the Chamberlain seems quite taken aback by Chup’s behavior when the two of them are poking around the demon pit—first because Chup doesn’t realize that he is being prepared for his pledging ceremony, and then when Chup wants to confirm his orders with Lord Som. To be honest though, it seems pretty foolish of Chup for him to question the viceroy’s orders in a matter of this magnitude, and Som’s forgiving response to Chup’s insolence was rather surprising.

Chup’s visit to Som’s personal chamber, below the main audience hall, is an excellent bit of horror writing. Previously, during Charmian’s audience, the narration included whiffs of his gangrenous smell and mention of the fact that, when viewed from the corner of the eye, the viceroy appears to be a bare skeleton. (Saberhagen does adroitly give a concrete reason why Charmian is looking at him from a steep angle; she is demurely lowering her eyes as she bows before the lord.) These are nice effects, but rather conventional ones. On the other hand, the strange candle that casts darkness instead of light, set at the focus of a polygonal arc of mirrors, is much more original. (The odd light and the cold of the room, in spite of the torches, reminds me atmospherically of a Dungeons & Dragons adventure more than anything else. The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun was one of a couple early adventures that were designed with particular horror elements.) I also realized that in an odd way, the dark candle really does illuminate Som’s face, for it shows him as he truly is—not human. This encounter would make a wonderful scene in a film adaptation of these books.

Offered the command of the citadel’s thousand collared guardsmen, Chup accepts his assignment. We’ll see how his pledging ceremony works out next week—although first we must spend some time back with the forces of the West in chapter 7 (which includes perhaps my favorite encounter of the whole three-book epic).

Cult Television

April 9, 2013

I recently came across a list of the top 25ish cult television shows of all time. (Of course, for lists on the Internet, “of all time” has to be interpreted as meaning “of the last fifteen years, plus one or two older examples.” The oldest show on the list was Doctor Who, which it did acknowledge went all the way back to the 1960s, but the second-oldest was Twin Peaks. The Prisoner didn’t even merit a mention.) I was struck by how odd and inconsistent the criteria for inclusion seemed to be.

For example, the list included LOST, which was a hugely successful network juggernaut. The list authors attempted to justify its insertion with the note that the viewership fell off a lot by the later seasons. The basic criterion for a “cult” show (or movie, or whatever) is supposed to be its building of a key group with which it is very popular and successful. The two conditions, which can be characterized as limited viewership and viewer loyalty, need to go together. Shows like LOST or Twin Peaks don’t belong; they were extremely successful in their opening seasons, when they could afford to make everything mysterious and not explain anything. It’s much easier to construct a compelling-seeming mystery than to resolve it. Watching the early episodes of these shows, the viewer asks, “How can this all fit together and make sense?” Well, dear viewer, it can’t. The producers are just making things up, and for a while this can be very interesting, but eventually it tends to crash and burn, when it’s revealed that nobody has any clue where it’s going. The X Files was on the list too, and it falls into the same general category, although there are few key differences: I don’t think that show was ever really that interesting; and the over-arching plot was a part of only a very small fraction of the episodes.

I don’t think the shows of this type shows are really that good, in the final reckoning. Quality narrative art needs to have a good ending, which LOST, Twin Peaks, The X Files, and even The Prisoner do not. Of course, the incentives in Hollywood do not encourage people to make carefully reasoned-out shows with strictly coherent plots. If the producers can capture one or two seasons of top viewing numbers, they can make enough dough to retire. It’s also much easier for them to get subsequent projects through development and production. Even though Twin Peaks was canceled in the second season, the creator David Lynch managed to get funding for a pilot for a show that was originally envisioned as as Twin Peaks spin-off (although it was ultimately made with all new actors and no explicit connection to Peaks). That didn’t get picked up, but Lynch still managed to get some extra money to make the pilot longer for a theatrical release (even though all the sets had already been demolished, forcing Lynch to resort to an, “It was all a dream,” resolution).

This list also included shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for which “cult” apparently means no more or less than “mainstream success.” I remember recently reading some other blogger excoriating The Big Bang Theory for not respecting its audience. This was a man who unironically named Buffy as his all-time favorite show. Now that was a work that had no respect for its audience. More specifically, it appeared to operate under the assumption that its viewers had been watching for three years at the most; any facts from more than a few seasons back could be freely ignored if it happened to suit the writers. They could get away with this at the time, since the heyday of Buffy was just before full-season DVD sets became a common commodity. What I don’t understand is how people who go back and what the whole show from beginning to end without bridling.

The top show of the “cult” list was Doctor Who, which really can be considered a cult phenomenon, at least in America. In its native Britain, the show is about as mainstream as the legendary soap opera Coronation Street. In contrast, The Prisoner or Monty Python’s Flying Circus were cult phenomena on both sides of the Atlantic. I have a soft spot for Doctor Who, having watched it during the first big wave of American interest in the program, in the 1980s. Yet I have to admit that the show has always been very uneven, whether we’re talking about the original run, from 1963-1989, or the recent revival. (The American made-for-TV movie in between was not uneven; it was just bad.) The problem is that the show, like The X Files, has a strictly episodic format, with new writers, directors, and designers for each new story. Sometimes their ideas are good; sometimes they are woefully bad. Moreover, the traditional BBC production schedule was extremely tight, which meant that if a script turned out to be a total disaster, there was really no time to get another one to replace it; only a complete nervous breakdown on the part of the writer would be enough to get the BBC to commission a hasty-drafted replacement story.

Since the late 1970s, the show maintained the pretense that there was some sort of ongoing storyline, but (with a few exceptions), the details of the broader story arc were simply tacked onto existing scripts. This doesn’t seem to have changed in any substantive way with the new show; as one Internet commenter put it, “Tossing ‘Bad Wolf’ or ‘Torchwood’ into each episode of the season doesn’t make a story arc.” (Actually, “each episode of the season” is already a huge overstatement of how often “Bad Wolf” appeared noticeable in the first season of the revived series.) This policy ultimately prevents the story from ever really developing enough narrative momentum to make it feel like there is something consistent going on from one week to the next.

The two chapters we’re talking about this week both have an emphasis on technology. One chapter follows Chup, and the other follows Rolf. Chup comes first; the book picks up the former satrap’s story as he is crossing the desert with the soldiers sent by his lady Charmian. Much of the attention is still focused on the ring of Charmian’s golden hair that Chup stole from Rolf in chapter 2.

While Chup carries this love charm, we get Saberhagen’s most effective presentation of its powers. The ring of hair originally belonged to the wizard Elslood, who was smitten with Charmian even before the thing was made. It’s not really possible to distinguish Elslood’s natural lust for this woman from the effects of his magical backfire. Moreover, Elslood is such an unsympathetic character, it’s very hard for the reader to get inside his strange, cruel head. It’s obviously much easier to identify with Rolf, the item’s second owner. However, Rolf only has the charm for a couple of chapters (plus half a year between volumes), and, as Chup notices, Rolf’s admiration for Charmian is pathetically adolescent.

Chup, unlike Elslood and Rolf, takes the charm knowing full well what it is and what it might do to him. He also knows Charmian as Rolf does not. Chup knows that his wife will sell out anyone or anything if it is even momentarily convenient to do so. Yet even when he’s thinking clearly, Charmian is still a powerful symbol of something that he does want: power. He married her because of power politics, and now that she is in residence at the court of Som the Dead, she may be able to open new avenues of power up to him. So Chup steals the love charm, and it befuddles him, but he still recognizes that his new-found devotion to Charmian is unnatural and illogical. We get to see his thought processes on numerous occasions. He’s obsessed with finding his bride, even though he remembers that he barely had a thought for her during his six months in exile. I thought this was a very effective way of presenting the effects of mind control magic. (It also reminded me of a similar—although less smoothly executed—bit of writing in Asimov’s Second Foundation. One of the minions of the telepathic mutant dictator known as The Mule points out that he knows The Mule has interfered with his mind. The man understands that he would have been outraged by this invasion, if only it had not been so successful.)

Eventually, Chup finds his way back to Charmian, who doesn’t treat him very kindly. Her ego is still smarting over a slap he delivered to her in the chaos that followed their wedding. It was hardly a memorable incident for Chup (or for me, as a reader), but the princess is not one to forget a slight. From her first appearance in this book, we are reminded of her pettiness. The fact that she sprays spit in Chup’s face as she’s yelling at him is a compelling way of showing how out-of-control her personality is.

The climax of chapter 3 is Chup’s battle with the vile yet banal Tarlenot and the stunning revelation in its aftermath. Chup cuts through the lesser villains with ease, but in his weakened condition, he needs a ruse to defeat the metal-collared guardsman. Tarlenot’s death scene is brief but gruesome, but as soon as he falls, a strange piece of Old World technology appears. A helicopter swoops down to claim his corpse. The description of its six insect-like feelers or legs I found rather unnerving, even though I recognized what the flying machine was and already knew its function. Like a flying coffin, it swallows the dead fellow up and flits away with him. Saberhagen describes the wind from the propeller, but not the beating sound of the blade against the air. Nevertheless, I heard that rhythm in my head, receding as the Valkyrie carried the mangled body up toward the caves of the Beast-Lord Draffut.

Chup cleans himself and rests, then returns to find Charmian again—still obsessed by Elslood’s charm. When he locates her, he also finds the biggest surprise of the chapter—Tarlenot alive and well. So the man fulfills the prophecy made about him quite promptly, and the former satrap is left to gape at the unkillable man who he sees as having stolen his wife.

With the next chapter, we return to Rolf, who is much more at home with ancient technology that Chup. In the conference of the Free Folk leaders, we learn for the first time something about the nature of demons and their—to use Gray’s Old World term here—souls. Souls are separable from demons’ physical presences, and this can make the monsters incredibly dangerous. They can be driven back with magic but never killed, as long as their essences remain hidden from all enemies. On the other hand, a magician in possession of a demon’s soul jar can exercise absolute power over the monster with the threat of death. While the idea of powerful evil creatures storing their life forces away from their bodies is hardly original to Saberhagen, this book represents the most artful use of that trope that I have ever encountered. This topic will be important again in chapter 7, and I will discuss it in more detail when we get to that point.

One other thing that I found interesting in the course of Gray’s description was his remark that, to the layman, “the ways of demons are as unaccountable as those of earthquakes.” So Gray considers demons to be better understood than seismology, which makes some sense for a powerful wizard living in a world without science, but it still sounds very odd to a reader who knows something about plate tectonics.

We don’t find out about the plan Thomas and Gray have devised at the meeting of the Western officers; Saberhagen only gives a sampling of the incredulous responses. However, once Rolf is apprenticed to Gray as a technologist, we soon learn what is afoot. Rolf knows something about Old World ground vehicles, but there were also machines that flew. (Gray interjects that some of these flying machines still exist, which informs the reader that the forces of the West must know something about Draffut’s Valkyries and what impact they may have on the coming battle.) After a bit of prestidigitation with a staff (which is helps lighten the atmosphere a bit, showing a powerful wizard using more playful magic), Gray shows off a rather odd-sounding drawing of a hot air balloon arrangement and tells Rolf a little about buoyancy.

To make the planned dirigibles, Gray needs to summon up a djinn. I think this is the only such creature that appears over the course of the whole trilogy. The nature of the djinn is a mystery. They appear to be summoned (rather than created or coalesced on the spot, like elementals). This one reveals that he was born when the world changed, but he gives no clue as to how.

The djinn is a creature of fire, described a number of times as a scroll of smoke. I’m honestly not sure what image Saberhagen meant to convey with this choice of words. The snaky tendrils of smoke are comprehensible enough, but is the core of the djinn’s body supposed to be a curve of two-dimensional fire? Or is it a tightly wound cylinder?

The way the djinn is summoned is rather charming, using miniature tools along with traditional protective inscriptions. And the creature behaves along the lines expected of some traditional Arabic djinn (of the efreet type). It is composed of ever-burning fire and is neither good, nor evil. The genies (“genie” being a Latinate word unrelated to the Semitic “djinni” that was used in translations of the Arabian Nights because of its similarity in both sound and meaning) of Aladin’s lamp and ring were both efreet, and they were skilled artisans (especially the slave of the lamp). Like many efreet, Gray’s is sullen and indignant at being used, twisting words and rarely answering with the whole truth.

The djinn’s sly nature and its back-and-forth with Rolf provide the best moments of this chapter. The creature laughs when Gray wants the metal balloons to be filled with vacuum; that’s more warning that the request is folly that many efreet might provide. When this design fails (with a very memorable paragraph full of collapsing, shattering shells of steel), Gray gets frustrated. He’s a wizard, not used to the working of Old World science. Rolf, on the other hand, is a natural, although he makes a grave error of his own. For the reader, who knows all about balloon, jet, and helicopter technology, the dramatic irony as Rolf tries to put together a idea of how the ancients flew is humorous—especially when Rolf unknowingly calls for the delivery of a jet plane rudder for his tiny lighter-than-air craft. That scene is beautifully silly, but it should teach Rolf an important lesson about taking care what he asks for from powerful and indifferently disposed beings.

We will not really be seeing Rolf next week, however. Chapters 5 and 6 deal with Chup’s further adventures in the Black Mountains. Every time I read this book, I am surprised by the fact that it’s really Chup, not the more overtly heroic Rolf, who’s the most important protagonist in this book.