Flesh and Spirit by Carol Berg
Flesh and Spirit by Carol Berg is the first of a duology known as The Lighthouse Duet. This is the story of Valen, a man caught up in major political manoeuverings, both temporal and spiritual. As the book starts, he is soon embroiled with a few brave souls who believe their world is entering an end-of-days scenario. They have created an ark of knowledge which they hope will stand untouched if the threatened destructive forces arrive, much like a lighthouse stands against the stormy seas. It will carry the means to rebuild when the danger has passed. Yet this is not a straightforward world. There is a second dimension from which different beings influence the human world. Like the fey in our mythology, time passes at a different rate in their realm, they may kidnap “folk” from the human world, and they may produce changelings who can pass between the worlds. If the end of the human world is coming, perhaps they can help. Unfortunately, there’s also the possibility they may be responsible for the end. So what the humans need is a way of talking to these beings whether to invite their help or to fight back.
Thematically, Carol Berg is relying on one of the standard tropes: a man with magical abilities in denial. It all starts with him as a young boy. He has the misfortune to be dyslexic. To hide his disability, he learns to lie and cheat. He becomes a rebellious teen and refuses to follow in his family’s business as a magician. He should train and be pimped to the rich and powerful who can afford to pay for his talents. Instead, he goes walkabout in a perversely Australian sense of the word, i.e. in his late adolescence, he embarks on a nomadic quest. But instead of the usual spiritual purpose, Valen wants to lose himself. So, cloaked in anonymity, he travels the world ending as a mercenary when a war of succession breaks out. Sadly, his campaign does not go as he hopes and the book begins with him seriously wounded. In full retreat, his partner drops him off at the E.R. of a religious organisation notorious for its neutrality. As he heals physically, he also begins to find some peace within himself. Naturally a loner, he has had few companions other than fellow mercenaries. They bond out of self-interest, learning to rely on each other for survival. This kind of self-interested loyalty is not the same as friendship. In this new setting, his rejection of the world and its framework of magic is challenged. In part this is because he is tempted into more real friendships with the monks and some of the lighthouse operators. But his curiosity is piqued when he discovers there has been a recent murder. When a second monk goes missing, this confirms something real to investigate.
The central metaphor explored (pun intended) in this book is the nature and function of maps and mapping. There are many different ways of capturing the spatial reality of a world, recognising that this is not just to record physical geography, but also social structures. A map is of no use unless it tells you where something is in relation to other physical markers — after all, you might want to travel there. But it should also tell you how important the place or “thing” is — that helps you decide whether the journey using the mediaeval transport systems of walking and horses, is likely to be worth the effort. Mere humans see only the superficial lines on paper. Those with magical abilities may read deeper meanings into the symbols. The real question is what a dyslexic magician sees when he opens a book of maps. If meaning is denied from conventional symbols, might he see a different way?
Valen’s magical talent focuses on understanding landscapes. He is, if you like, sensitive to a locale and its recent history. My reason for the earlier reference to Australian Aborigines is their interest in the songlines, magical paths which cross the land and which you follow by humming the tune or singing the words of the song. So Valen also identifies musical threads that are woven together into each locale’s tapestry of memory. His stay in religious retreat cannot last, of course. He must re-enter the world to find answers to both his own problems and those affecting the people around him.
The result is a rather elegant tale. Although the fighting over the succession to the throne is not intended to be original, it gives the story a good centre of gravity. The human world is waiting for some kind of resolution so it can heal and move on. Except the threat of destruction looms over all. This conflict and the more pervading fear of doom are sharpened because of the acceptance of magic into the power structure. Mundane politics cannot ignore magical abilities and so must find a way of controlling the adepts. In this case, it means convincing the magicians to police themselves, forcing them to imprison those who will not toe the party line. Life is tough for a nonconformist like Valen.
All is told in a clear and well-structured prose, giving us just enough exposition to explain the context and then moving on with the action. In this case, the blending of fantasy and mystery is well handled. We feel Valen’s interest in working out exactly what is happening and why. At the end, everything is set up nicely for the second and concluding volume called Breath and Bone. It’s enjoyable and well worth reading if you enjoy high-concept fantasy.
For the record, the duology of Flesh and Spirit and Breath and Bone won the Mythopoeic Award in 2009.