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The Master of Heathcrest Hall by Galen Beckett

First, let me rise to the occasion with an apology and praise where it’s due. The Master of Heathcrest Hall by Galen Beckett (a pseudonym of Mark Anthony) (Random House, 2012) is not a pallid rendering of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë nor some tip of the hat to events at Thornfield Hall courtesy of Charlotte Brontë — even though part of the Hall in this novel does burn down. This is a legitimate science fiction or fantasy novel in its own right. The better quality of work I noted in The House of Durrow Street has born fruit as Galen Beckett now abandons the pretense of a mashup with style dictating plot, and develops a strong narrative in more or less contemporary language. We start off with an invasion and survival for a tribe lost in time thanks both to the arrival of two strangers and to the power of the forest. We’re then back to our present with Mrs Quest and tragedy as she miscarries. It does, however, enable us to catch sight of an emerging Darwinism and make us wonder about how traits may be inherited.

In Parliament, Rafferdy is engaged in defending civil liberties while the question of royal succession remains uncertain. It seems those seeking power want to ensure loyalty to Altania by modifying the presumptive Constitutional rights of free speech and association. It’s the usual power grab based on a redefinition of the crimes of sedition and treason. But strange since, without a sovereign on the throne, royal reputations are not at risk. Then there’s the plan to cut back the ancient forests. . . Rafferdy, ever the bold one, is continuing his interest in magic, despite the danger of arrest. As Eldyn grows more comfortable in the Theater of the Moon, he moves into the world of journalism as a paparazzi, making impressions of scenes for publication in the local newspapers. It’s surprising how effectively the images capture the “truth” of what the impressionist sees and how politically manipulative some images can become.

The development of the political situation is slightly drawn out but, once the nature of the plot becomes more clear and Mr Quest is arrested, matters begin to move with a better pace. Eldyn becomes a revolutionary and, when Rafferdy tracks him down, the first step to resolving the situation has been taken. Ivy has been too slow to put all the pieces together and is still plagued by her dreams of the past. Although nightmare might be a more appropriate description once she knows Mr Bennick has returned. Now, as the battle lines are drawn up, the relationship between Lily and Eldyn becomes particularly touching. In a good cause, he’s running down his physical reserves by continuing in the theatre and making impressions. All is going well until a lover spurned puts him in danger. Rafferdy turns out to be a natural leader in the military sense, while Ivy and Rose wait for a chance to contribute to the fight.

Thematically, this is a powerful work about the power and possible redemptive quality of self-sacrifice. Let’s put aside all overtones of class and recognise nobility of spirit as the worth we see in an individual based on the contribution he or she makes to the general good. Although well-established societies use the word “noble” to confer only an honorific status, that status was earned at some point in the past. The public acknowledged bravery or some other valuable quality. Governments prosper when their citizens are motivated to give of their best. When heroes emerge in each generation, they must be co-opted into social structures of honour and respect. There will also be land and wealth to be earned. Naturally, some heroes will act hoping for the rewards, but the most deserving are those who care nothing for themselves, but only for the cause for which they fight.

So, let’s come down to motives. Suppose a husband wishes to die before his trial. That way, there will be no conviction and his wife can inherit his estates. The problem is, to achieve his end, he must persuade another to kill him. His wife may benefit from this self-sacrifice, but the price is to make another a murderer. What about those who are human “weapons”? The physical warriors train and hone their skills to become the best possible fighters. It’s not their role to judge the quality of the orders given. Their sole mission is to carry out the orders of those they choose to serve, even if they know they are being sent on a suicide mission. The other warriors have less obvious skills, but are no less effective in the defence of the realm. They may not pick up a knife or a gun, but they are the thinkers who plan, the technologists who develop new weapons, and the women who stay at home and work in the factories to produce the ammunition for the soldiers to fire. Once the community is engaged, who is to say any one contribution is less valuable than another. So long as all are committed to the enterprise and they all give their contribution without regard to their own safety, are they not all heroes? Or do we judge people by their motives? For each who chooses to die, are we to value those deaths differently because some serve out of loyalty and devotion, as opposed to a desire to seek redemption for past wrongs? Do the deaths of the “guilty” match the deaths of the “good”? Or does our willingness to forgive what we believe to be past sins somehow change the nature of their sacrifice?

From this you will understand The Master of Heathcrest Hall inspires some interesting questions of morality to ponder. Although, by my standards, the book takes a little too long in the telling, this is the current fashion and I do not blame Galen Becket for following it although the length of the epilogue is excessive when, “And they all lived happily ever after” would have sufficed. The end product is elegant in explaining all that has gone before and, as we come into the final section, genuinely exciting. Taken as a whole, the trilogy is one of the better ones currently available (you can skip through the first volume to extract the hub of the story) and well worth picking up by everyone who enjoys science fiction with transport and other systems powered by practical magic. In a way, it harks back to the old days of science fantasy in which the way physical effects are achieved is irrelevant. We’re not to be interested in why a “machine” should work not because of its springs and gear wheels, but because of the runes carved into the frame. We’re simply to accept the fact it works and enjoy the wonder of the results.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

For reviews of the earlier books in the trilogy, see:

The Magicians and Mrs Quest

The House on Durrow Street

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