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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.

Pock’s World by Dave Duncan

It’s slightly unnerving for old guys like me when you start reading a modern book and find yourself immediately infected by the notion you’ve read it before. You intellectually tremble. Thinking processes are briefly considered. Is this the start of Alzheimer’s disease where old memories resurface as we struggle to assimilate new information? So where’s all this angst coming from? As a sign of my misspent youth, I read A Case of Conscience by James Blish in the early 1960s. Although I’ve been an atheist for as long as I can remember, this has never stopped me reading books directly or indirectly about religions. So I found this exploration of a Jesuit’s reaction to a “godless” world completely fascinating, just as the exported alien’s reaction to our paranoid Earth was equally riveting. As a fix-up, the narrative structure of the whole was flawed, but the writing was good. If you are interested in the history of science fiction and you have not already done so, it’s a classic book you should consider reading.

So here we are all over again with Pock’s World by Dave Duncan. A team is sent out to decide whether this titular world is to be quarantined and, possibly, sterilised, or allowed to continue as a part of the human community. The members are a devout Catholic, a megarich businessman, an independent-minded politician, an intelligent investigative reporter, and a bureaucrat with an agenda. The decision depends on what it means to be human. We could treat this as a strictly genetic test. If the chromosomes drift too far from a statistical norm we define as “human” we can say this is a step too far and put a stop to it before the whole gene pool is contaminated. Or we could look beyond the biology to decide at a metaphysical level when a creature is classifiable as human.

In one sense, this is the old cuckoo problem. If the next generation is going to be a species evolutionary shift, you had better kill the cuckoos before they push you out of the nest. But if these new creatures are really us, do we want to be responsible for killing our own children? This signals the first distinction with A Case of Conscience in which the world is “alien” and the discussion of humanity is tangential until the alien child is brought back to Earth. In Pock’s World, the definition of humanity is centre-stage and made all the more difficult because, to help humans adapt to different environments, there has been genetic manipulation anyway. It has been easier to change humans to fit, rather than terraform the environments to suit our needs.

Unlike other books by Dave Duncan, there’s a slightly wooden quality about this. There’s a lot of infodumping and quite a lot of arguing for different points of view. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a book trying to be about ideas rather than “mindless” action, I found this rather slow-moving and uninvolving. That’s not to say this is not clever. It is.

Dave Duncan still managing an entirely human smile

It’s at this point that I draw a second distinction with A Case of Conscience. The focus of the early take on this theme of quarantining a world is inherently religious. Without getting too deeply into spoiler territory, Pock’s World has a rather different perspective. Again the priest is an important character who must decide whether to pray for the world to be destroyed so that the spawn of the Devil cannot escape, or pray for the world to be saved so that the millions of innocent people have a chance to fight for their survival. Assuming, of course, that a fight will be required. But he’s not the primary character. In the end, this is a book about sacrifice, not to say martyrdom. No matter what people believe, they base their actions on instincts and emotions, on calculations and hope for the best outcomes. Throughout time, individuals have died in fear or out of love, for their beliefs in a higher cause and in the knowledge that their sacrifice will be recognised and valued by future generations.

In a way, such sacrifices are what makes us human. No-one can see the future. Nothing is ever completely certain. So when individuals decide to die for a cause, they are trusting their judgements as to consequences. Depending on your point of view, this is evidence of nobility or stupidity or both or of some other qualities I have not identified. Motives explain choices, but do not necessarily justify those choices when others see the outcomes. It can all come down to luck that it works out right. In this case, it’s all about the outcome of a coincidence when long-laid plans mature at the same time as an act of faith.

Overall, this is a book I admired more than I enjoyed. The story Dave Duncan sets out to tell is interesting once we get past the set-up. The problem is that the first view of the characters presents them as being quite unlikeable. I think, instead of a linear approach, it might have been better to start in medias res, and then have flashbacks to show relevant background information about the characters and how they got to the world. As it is, there’s too much delay in getting to the important interactions. In particular, the movement through the entanglement system to Pock’s World is unnecessary padding. When we needed to know, the characters could have explained the technology of movement between worlds, and introduced the basics of trade between groups of worlds. That way we appreciate salience and can relate to the information more meaningfully. So I express luke-warm support for Pock’s World as a clever bit of mystery wrapped up in a science fictional context.

For other books by Dave Duncan, see The Alchemist’s Apprentice, The Alchemist’s Code, The Alchemist’s Pursuit, Speak to the Devil and When the Saints.

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.

The Alchemist’s Pursuit by Dave Duncan

In my previous outings dealing with The Alchemist’s Apprentice and The Alchemist’s Code, I have hitched my wagon of disquisition to the admission that my grandma read tea leaves and claimed powers of clairvoyance. So it was that, once a week at its predictable time, the Lipton’s van pulled up in our street and the driver would start knocking on doors to sell his packets of floor-sweepings as my grandma uncharitably described the quality of the tea. Indeed, everyone from knife grinders to grocery delivery men variously announced their arrivals, often horse-drawn, by the ringing of bells or the honking of horns — dray horses were still making beer deliveries for Scottish & Newcastle Breweries when I left the North East in the 1960s. However, just as fashions change in delivery systems, my taste in drinks has also evolved. Perforce, tea was the main drink with food rationing continuing until the early 1950s and coffee beans hardly a priority for import to support post-war reconstruction. My taste for the overly milky and sweet concoctions of my youth slowly faded to be replaced by coffee — a drink that seemed more exotic to a teenager. Now, I rarely drink anything other than black coffee. This somewhat limits my ability to foretell the future since residual coffee grounds make very poor indicators of likely events. Instead, I rely on track record for predictive purposes.

With The Alchemist’s Pursuit by Dave Duncan, the third in the series, we have an emerging pedigree which predisposes the timorously optimistic book buyer to believe that the latest episode will be as good as the last. In fact, it proves an engaging read. We are plunged straight back into the Venice of the faux Nostradamus and his apprentice Alfeo with the ultimately invisible crime: the murder of a courtesan. As any patriarchally inclined observer will know, all prostitutes invite death simply by selling their bodies to men. That courtesans deal with a better class of men does not exempt them from this reality, particularly in late 16th or early 17th century Venice. Except that the circumstances surrounding this first death are unusual, and when the number of deaths rises to three and then four, it’s obvious that something more sinister is afoot. So Alfeo is sent out on to the mean canals to ask his questions and use his well-honed memory to remember every last detail of what he sees and hears while an increasingly disabled Nostradamus distracts himself from the pain of his rheumatism by concentrating his analytical mind on fitting the facts collected by Alfeo into a potential solution.

The supernatural element is slightly less prominent than in the two earlier volumes. Here Tarot forms the main guidance for the investigation and then there is the curious behaviour of the cat. So how does the “problem” and its solution match up to the previous volumes?

The Alchemist’s Code remains one of the most elegant reveals of the last five years or so. It cannot easily be surpassed. In this third volume, there’s slightly less mystery — the actual whodunit is fairly obvious because of the small number of possible suspects — but the overall context for the deaths is most cleverly worked out and highly credible. Even on the last two or three pages, details are still emerging which give psychological depth to the “answer”. That not everything is played fair because some of the explanation depends on what Alfeo can see but does not describe in sufficient detail is more or less forgivable. Almost all mystery/detective stories “cheat” to some extent. As a story slowly revealed through Alfeo’s investigation and the musing of Nostradamus, this shows everyone caught up in a wonderfully tangled web, with all elements drawn together in a most satisfying way. It more or less stands on its own but, as with all series, the enjoyment is enhanced when you read the books in order and watch how the characters develop and interact.

A new series starts with Speak to the Devil and we have a stand-alone called Pock’s World.

The Alchemist’s Code by Dave Duncan

And now it is time to sit down for that second cup of my grandma’s tea (see The Alchemist’s Apprentice). There are times when I reach the end of a mystery book and the detective does the final “reveal” leaving the criminal a quivering wreck and I think, “Wow, that was really underwhelming!” I look back at the cardboard cut-out characters who were shuffled around the page to create the illusion of a puzzle and frankly, like Rhett, I don’t give a damn. Thank God for books like The Alchemist’s Code by Dave Duncan.

This is probably the most difficult of books to write — the second in what looks as though it may become an ongoing series. Let’s look over the author’s shoulder. He or she knows exactly what went into the first book and this was a success. So the first question is how much backstory to include in the second. You cannot assume that all the readers for the second volume will have read the first, but the more you repeat what happened in the first, the more you may bore the “old hands”. Duncan takes the bold route of assuming everything and plunging happily into the story. When some explanation is required, it is dropped unobtrusively into the text as we go along. This first step is encouraging.

He then produces an immediate statement of intent in the first major set-piece encounter between the Sanudos (the clients) and the two main characters Maestro Filippo Nostradamus (the detective) and Alfeo Zeno (the put-upon factotum). It is a delight to observe the dissection of the thought processes that go into impressing (or gulling) the clients.

Having settled into his rhythm, Duncan then sweeps us through a somewhat more violent and dangerous outing than the first volume. There is swordplay and a more positive supernatural element. We have the same tarot and use of a crystal ball, but there is a real jinx blocking progress in the investigation with an interesting confrontation. More importantly, the political framework of the story is much more powerful and, even though some of the history is distinctly of the cod variety, it contributes beautifully to the content for the problem and its resolution.

Back to the ending. Absolutely everything about this particular solution is meticulously set up and then explained. It is so completely a part of the milieu of Venice that it is obvious once it is pointed out to you. But it is one of the few solutions over my reading past that has evoked genuine admiration. The only other author who consistently produced a similar response is Anthony Price. The cleverness of the misdirection in some of the Dr. David Audley novels is unsurpassed. In this case, I immediately read the last few chapters again to enjoy it all over again.

Overall, this is far better than the first and can be read as a stand-alone. A positive joy in every respect. The next in the series is The Alchemist’s Pursuit. There’s a new series starting with Speak to the Devil and When the Saints, and a stand-alone called Pock’s World.

The Alchemist’s Apprentice by Dave Duncan

June 29, 2009 3 comments

For reasons never clear to me, my Grandma always claimed she had second sight.

Although, when I come to think of it, this does explain why I was always a serious disappointment to her (even before I was born or so my mother alleges). Anyway, my Grandma had the good fortune to start her life as a member of a well-to-do, upper middle class family. As was the fashion, they dabbled with séances, table turning and all the other socially acceptable forms of spiritualism. I suppose it was a good way to add a frisson of excitement to an otherwise boring evening if someone could vomit a pile of ectoplasm on to the carpet and then make it disappear without the aid of a maid. Later, her good fortune came to an abrupt end with the unexpected death of her much-loved husband. Life can be hard sometimes.

When I was growing up, my mother regularly walked me round to visit her mother (I think it was a kind of penance) and, after sandwiches and cake, there was always a reading of the tea leaves. My Grandma would swirl the almost empty cup and invert it into the saucer. Pointing the cup, her practised eye surveyed the shapes formed by the stranded leaves, and cascades of prediction filled the air between us — Grandma was usually pleasingly obscure albeit never in the same league as Nostradamus. As a callow youth, I always found the performance mesmerising, but I’ve never asked my mother whether she took any of the divination seriously.  All I know is that the ritual filled a twenty minute gap when conversation might otherwise have flagged.

And speaking of Nostradamus (in this case, a fictionalised nephew Filippo rather than the more famous Michel) brings me to The Alchemist’s Apprentice by Dave Duncan (Ace, March, 2007).

I confess to liking books that take their predicates seriously and work out all the awkward implications. So, this is a classical historical murder mystery with a fantasy twist. Classical because the murder takes place in a room with only (about) a dozen people present which limits the number of suspects, and historical because it’s set in the Venice of the Doge in the mid- to late-sixteenth century. In this instance, the Great Detective knows almost from the outset who dunit — he is, after all, one of Europe’s foremost seers and well-versed in the occult. Naturally, he lives up to his reputation by throwing himself into a trance and autowriting himself the answer.

As an aside, this conflation of genre elements is quite brave in the current publishing environment when everything is usually commissioned and packaged according to a rigid formula. For once, potential readers are treated as having the general wit and internal strength to read and enjoy a book that crosses multiple genres. I wish more publishers would abandon simplistic marketing strategies and publish books on their merits even though this may pose problems for literal-minded booksellers — those store shelves are so conveniently and exclusively labelled mystery, historical and fantasy.

Returning to the book, there is but one small awkward implication in all this. If you know who dunit because you invoked a diabolical fiend and asked, this is not something you can admit in a polite mediaeval Catholic society. Sadly, consorting with devils is frowned upon and, once known, invariably results in a particularly painful and long-drawn-out form of execution. So, the plot requires the Great Detective who, like many others before him, is physically challenged and doesn’t get out much, to obtain secular proof to satisfy the ordinary mortals running the local law-enforcement agencies.

The solution, of course, conforms to the usual detective template. If you can’t do it yourself, you have a Dr. John H. Watson, Captain Arthur Hastings or Archie Goodwin (I always was a fan of Nero Wolfe) who will go out and do it for you. In this case, the poor sap is the eponymous apprentice, Alfeo Zeno. Because he’s not so good at keeping secrets (given that state inquisitors may be encouraging a free exchange of information), Nostradamus decides to keep the identity of the murderer to himself. This releases an agent provocateur into a volatile social and political situation and, ultimately leads to various unmaskings (of both the Carnival and non-Carnival variety).

Structurally, the balance between historical detail and the plot is managed well. It’s always tempting for an author to overelaborate and show off his research, but Duncan has his eye firmly on unravelling the suspects’ secrets, which turn out to be many and varied. Equally, the infusion of the fantasy element is restrained and well-integrated. Unlike The Price Of Silence by Kate Wilhelm, where the supernatural element is almost completely redundant to the otherwise intriguing mystery plot, this set of magical abilities adds new levels of danger and temptation to the lives of the Great Detective and his apprentice. What limited powers they have are double-edged and often provide only obscure results (as those of you who have looked at Nostradamus’ quatrains will know). But, when everyone is called back into the fatal dining room for the Great Detective to reveal all in a dramatic recreation of the original night, it’s the application of prosaic investigative skills and simple logic that lead us to the conclusion. The book is therefore predominately a mystery novel (hint to shelvers even though the blurb on this trade paperback inconveniently proclaims “Fantasy”).

Does the author play fair in the plotting? I’m pleased to report that he does. Sometimes mystery solutions flow from key details not revealed to the reader, but Duncan allows the apprentice to see and consider the implications of what he has seen. It’s then up to us to decide what weight to attach to each fact and opinion. I confess that I got it wrong. But, were she still around, my Grandma would apply her tasseomancy to this cheerful brew of mystery (and magic) and not only identify the killer, but almost certainly foresee a sequel, probably titled The Alchemist’s Code, due from the hands of a tall bespectacled, white-haired Scottish/Canadian author in 2008. And looking even further into the future, you can also expect The Alchemist’s Pursuit and The Alchemist’s Code. A new series starts with Speak to the Devil and When the Saints, and we have a stand-alone called Pock’s World.

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