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Speak to the Devil by Dave Duncan

Urban fantasy and paranormal romances are very much the fashion these days, with authors happily playing with the idea of vampires, werewolves and all kinds of magical folk disporting themselves in the twilight of our modern world. Perhaps I’ve been beaten into submission by the constant drip of film and TV blurring the genres, now accepting Buffy et al as embedded in our culture. Although, truth be told, this is just an excuse to indulge in often senseless violence in the hope the contemporary settings will add an extra frisson of fear. We are supposed to think, “That could be us!” As if. . . But when it comes to historical novels, it’s disconcerting to find them morphing into fantasy, particularly when an author has taken the care to research a real world environment. This is not to say an author cannot bend the genre rules. The writer’s code is not carved in stone. You do not have to be Brandon Sanderson and set your fantasy novel in a fictitious world where the magic can play by whatever rules you create. But internal consistency just somehow feels more comfortable. Fictional powers in a fictional world, I say. Albeit that’s a nonsense because anything not real is by definition “fictional”. Anyway, it’s rather like coming across an anachronism in a historical novel. Personally, I flinch. Similarly, there’s an immediate conflict when magic achieves something impossible in the real world being described. Imagine the chaos if C. S. Forester had decided to give Horatio Hornblower the supernatural power to change the direction of the wind whenever his hero got into difficulties during a naval engagement and needed to tack out of danger.

In Speak to the Devil by Dave Duncan we have the assumption that Joan of Arc had access to magical powers and was, in effect, the visible tip of an iceberg. So, all around Europe, we have magical abilities running in families. At low levels of power, these individuals are tolerated by the states and, in appropriate cases, actively exploited for political advantage. But if the power increases, then the individuals become too inherently dangerous to all the untalented power-brokers and so must be eradicated.

It’s interesting to compare this to Duncan’s Alchemist trilogy — a densely plotted series of mysteries set in a “real” Venice where some magic works. In this sentence, we have the pivotal difference between the two approaches. In the first The Alchemist’s Apprentice, the whole issue of the magic is left equivocal. We understand that “this” Nostrodamus may have some predictive abilities, but the solution to the mystery depends on the application of intelligence. Similarly, the sidekick may use Tarot Cards, but the results are enigmatic and he’s left to fend for himself as best he can. It’s only as the series progresses that the supernatural element becomes slightly more explicit. But, even in the third The Alchemist’s Pursuit, the mystery element remains dominant. These are inherently mystery novels with a supernatural twist.

In what is trailed as The Brothers Magnus, a new series, we start off in the same spirit as many other historical novels with a d’Artagnan sent off on a mission impossible by a Cardinal Richelieu who wants plausible deniability in using supernatural powers to defeat an invading enemy. Well, apart from the “speaking” which is quite vague at the outset, this could be any derivative work, and we go through the first third of the book with only a limited form of teleportation to get us more quickly from A to B. This minor aberration to speed up events that would otherwise get bogged down with days of fast riding on tiring horses does not detract from the general spirit as historical. We then have a really clunky change of gear in which the magic becomes dominant and history be damned (like the Speakers if you care to listen to the religiously inclined of the Age). This second third of the novel is somewhat annoying. The emerging extent of the magical powers jars with the history of the period and trying to paper over the cracks by these discussions about Joan of Arc is something of a cheat. Although the historical record shows her claiming inspiration through visions involving a number of Saints, her success was more likely due to raw intelligence and a clear understanding of military strategy.

In fact, more generally Duncan seems to be using this magic as a form of cheating. If someone is injured, a Speaker can negotiate for his recovery. This is miraculous and bends reality rather too much for my taste. But I do confess to becoming more interested in the magical mechanism as the book continues. The speaking with the “saints” is provocatively enigmatic and presents us (and the Speaker) with a mystery to solve. By the end, I was sufficiently interested to discover that the next in the series is called “When the Saints” and I have ordered my copy. It was a close run decision and, depending on your sensibilities, you may well decide the book is not for you. The sequel, When the Saints is much better and definitely worth reading.

For other books by Dave Duncan, see The Alchemist’s Apprentice, The Alchemist’s Code, The Alchemist’s Pursuit and Pock’s World.

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