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When the Saints by Dave Duncan

January 25, 2012 Leave a comment

When the Saints by Dave Duncan continues the story of the Brothers Magnus begun in Speak to the Devil and rather neatly brings what I take to be the first major narrative arc to a reasonably neat conclusion. In a sense, this book answers the criticisms I had of the first instalment by providing a much more coherent explanation of the way in which magical talents fit into the society as described. Although it’s a slight reach, I approve the explanation of why Joan of Arc could be burned at the stake. This gives us an excuse to suspend disbelief in our own history rather than have to work on accepting an alternate history. If we assume the same families continue to produce talents, we could have a rather pleasing conspiracy theory explanation for events in today’s world. It’s a shame we will probably never get to read this since, for the most part, Dave Duncan prefers to remain in the past (apart from the odd foray off-planet as in Pock’s World).

Anyway, back to the book as written. This is far better than the first on two counts. First, it disposes of the broader battle scenes quite quickly as young Wulf shows courage above and beyond the call both in defending Cardice and then in jaunting around to attack the supply chain. I don’t mind people hacking each other to bits but, after a few pages, it gets a bit repetitive and quite boring. Although I’ve come across fictional descriptions of military campaigns that did hold my interest, e.g. Ash by Mary Gentle, I more often flip through the battles to get to the political, economic and social content. So, not surprisingly, the second improvement is that, having apparently secured a major victory, we can then get into the politics and generalised explanations of the magical system. For these purposes, I’m prepared to accept the device of both Wulf and Madlenka having to learn fast on the hoof. Naturally, they both turn out to be inherently talented in their own ways and, with only a few hiccups, they are soon sailing along quite happily. Even difficult obstacles to their marriage are swept away. After all, they cannot mix in polite society unless their status is regularised. In Wulf’s case, his confidence is understandable because, as a brother born into a fighting family, he’s always been calm under pressure. Madlenka is slightly less credible. I’m all for the talented women having a more modern view of their world. Their abilities mean they cannot be bullied by the majority of men. As an “ordinary” woman born into a military family, I’m less sure Madlenka would have grown up quite as shown here. But this is a minor cavil. Both individually and as a team, the couple learn fast and are an even match for the more experienced people around them.

Dave Duncan in his prime

The underlying metaphors based on falconry are also rather pleasing. This blends into the political structure seamlessly. After all, for the untalented, there’s always the fear of betrayal and double-cross so there has to be a way of policing the relationships. It would never do if someone could renege on a contract of service. For example, suppose a bodyguard could be persuaded to look the other way. This would be bad for the victim and undermine the general reputation of the talented. It’s actually in everyone’s interests that there are enforceable limitations on what the talented can and cannot do with real enforcement powers available in the event of alleged misconduct. To his credit, Dave Duncan has followed the logic of his ideas and comes up with quite an interesting set of solutions. There has to be a balance of power between the different groups.

Not unnaturally, the heads of the various religions are in on the secret and have their own talented members on the payroll. This is the Middle Ages so Europe is a patchwork of small kingdoms and principalities which produces a large number of “rulers” who all want protection. Now add in an emerging merchant class that’s able to pay well for services rendered — assuming they are cute enough to work out that magic is real, of course. There’s a kind of independent guild that offers membership to non-aligned talents and, on the other side of the European borders, there are mirror organisations representing their interests. Think mutually assured destruction and, as between groups of states, there’s enough of a balance to ensure even large jurisdictional disputes can be judged impartially with enforcement action following.

Put all this together and you get a satisfying book with a well-designed magic system in a credible context. It would be interesting to see at least one more book exploring how Wulf and Madlenka get on in this rather different shadow world. I hope When the Saints sells well enough to justify TOR picking up a contract.

The jacket artwork by Matt Stawicki has good clean lines and captures the defence of Cardice rather nicely.

When the Saints was shortlisted for the Endeavor Award 2012.

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

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