Valkyrie and Djinn of Technology

April 6, 2013

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.


3 Responses to “Valkyrie and Djinn of Technology”

  1. Not sure what to comment, precisely, beyond to suggest, that I’ve always wondered whether the technology Djinn were created during the change out of the transformation of some sort of computer (perhaps a supercomputer) or similar device. I hadn’t thought that much about it’s vaguely described, smokey presence–it’s so much less interesting than the progressively more detailed forms of Zapranoth (and Som) which are described.

    Looking forward to Som, not quite dead but certainly not alive…

    • Buzz Says:

      This djinni was supposed to be unique (or at least unusual), in that it knew Old World crafts. Perhaps all the djinn were created from knowledge repositories of various sorts, but most of them learned new crafts in the new regime and only a few maintained the knowledge of the prior days. Then again, maybe it was created from a drill press. We never do get to see how the change creates any of the new world creatures (except the big guy, obviously), and I suspect that Saberhagen never really had a clear idea of how such things originated either.

      • I agree that Saberhagen hadn’t a completely clear idea of the origins of his new world supernatural beasties, with the partial exception of the demons, especially ‘Changeling Earth’s’ big bad (though even that one leaves questions open–if he was formed from a bomb, from whence came the two only slightly lesser demons he spent generations destroying (as threats to his power)? Smaller bombs? In any case, I believe we agree that it’s a generally good idea, but that the creation concept of the Djinn and other creatures becomes more difficult the more carefully one thinks about it. Surely one COULD come up with a satisfactory explanation that checks all the relevant boxes, but sometimes it’s best (as Saberhagen does here) not to worry about it and leave most of the details up to the reader’s imagination, which I think is done fairly successfully here and in other places.

        Where it really starts to get complicated, I suppose, is in the First or Second book of swords, wherein a great deal more confusion is added to what the hell is going on. The new entities of those books (‘the gods’) were something I wondered over, but which Saberhagen made a fair effort at explaining when he was dying, with ‘Ardneh’s Sword.’ Nevertheless, while it’s not a bad book, I don’t think the quality of that novel (which deliberately bridges the gap between ‘Empire’ and ‘Swords’ is of high enough quality to be considered quite cannon [or terribly interesting]. If you’re a big fan, go ahead–just be aware that ‘Ardneh’s Sword’ is almost equivalent in comparative quality to ‘Episode III’ of the Star Wars prequels–not horrible, entertaining in some respects, but not exactly a work of art.

        It does contain more Draffut, though, so that’s something 🙂

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