Fantasy League Round 1: The Silent Tower
The fundamental difference between playing the game for science fiction and for fantasy is that while the former can pitted against reality, the latter runs by a different standard. I would hardly expect Gandalf to accomplish his feats with a bunch of gunpowder or a gigantic Tesla coil.
Instead, the standard is more about reasonableness and internal consistency.
So, I’m starting with one of my personal favorites — The Silent Tower, by Barbara Hambly. It’s the first of three books; I’m going to try to re-read the other two and fill those in here as well.
Hambly isn’t going for a scientific audience, though she’s got a master’s in Medieval History and has a reputation for Doing The Research. She also does a fabulous job of creating believable characters.
Because I hate them personally, I will warn you that MASSIVE SPOILERS FOLLOW. Because the intrigue and mystery plays such a large role in the plot, if you plan on reading these and haven’t yet… wait to read the rest of this until you do.
You’ve read the book, or never plan to? Good. I’ll address a few of the things that are done well, and a few done poorly… but first, a quick overview.
Our two point-of-view characters include Joanna Sheraton, a computer engineer from our side of reality. Since the book was written in 1986, and clearly intended to take place in that time frame, we’ll need to keep in mind that computer tech has changed since then. She’s been dating Gary, who also works at the fictitious San Serano computer facility, which does important defense stuff for the US government. Gary is a jerk, but she’s still hanging out with him because he’s the only guy who’s ever shown her any attention.
The other character is Caris, grandson of Archmage Salteris, a sworn guard of the Council of Wizards, from the Empire of Ferryth. He’s young (19), and very slightly gifted with magic. He’s also immensely loyal to his grandfather.
Though not a point-of-view character, Antryg Windrose is also major — since he was taught by the Dark Mage, Suraklin, whom he later escaped (prior to Suraklin’s downfall, before the opening of the story). He was afterwards guided by Salteris, and joined the Council of Wizards… before violating their rules by helping some rebels, and getting himself locked up in the Silent Tower.
These three characters rapidly get thrown together by a complicated plot on the part of the villain, and have difficulty trusting each other, since Caris and Joanna suspect Antryg of being behind it all, and Antryg fears that Joanna is the villain’s helper.
Even though they burned the body, villain is the not-quite-dead, body-hopping Suraklin. With Gary as his confederate, Suraklin plans on building a magic-powered computer, into which he can dump his soul, memories, personality, and so on, perform all the magic he wants, and suck all the magic and happiness out of both worlds. They want to get Joanna to help, since she’s a way better programmer than Gary…
- Traceless Intruder — There was an intruder at a high-security government facility, in the room hosting your nice mainframe, and you didn’t catch him? Admittedly, he’s escaped across the Void, and the only evidence was that he’d tried to strangle Joanna in order to avoid being seen, but still… there should at least have been some drippings or smudges from his candle. At least security was in an uproar for a while going through the place trying to find him.
- Thefts at San Serano — Gary’s thefts seem… almost too easy here. It is a government facility — surely someone would have noticed the leaking money. Then again, these things do happen sometimes in real life, I expect. Perhaps more serious is the problem of programming this thing with only one or two people. This is perhaps helped by the fact that it’s a several year project, but there’s still a need for some magical handwavium.
- Industrial revolution — Fun times. The Empire of Ferryth is at the beginning of this, including child labor, soot, horses and consequences thereof, lack of proper sewage systems, and smoky single-shot pistols. The general portrayal of this kind of society seems roughly accurate…
- Baptism? Really? — … but it doesn’t quite ring true. There are simply too many cultural similarities to our own world. Corsets are in fashion; makeup for men; a single monotheistic, highly powerful Church is deeply involved in working against magic, though mostly not quarreling with the “Old Believers”, the polytheistic mage-adoring minority, and the descriptions of the architecture. They still have baptism, and chicken marinara… It’s a bit too similar for two worlds that supposedly have developed quite differently. At least the different parties end up using translation spells when in the opposite world, and some words that don’t have equivalents (sasenna, lipa, computer, floppy disk) don’t translate well, and must be explained.
- The Void — This may be a more serious issue. Whenever the Void is opened so that a mage can cross between worlds, it weakens the fabric between then. Which means that sometimes, other portals will open up elsewhere to other places, letting in who-knows-what Lovecraftian horrors. Some of them don’t survive the transfer, which is good, and our party of heroes ends up fighting some of the ones that thrive. The problem? The monsters only show up in Ferryth. Why doesn’t the same issue apply to the hills of California? Why are there not evil gigantic maggot-things eating our cows?
- Failure to communicate — I hate to say it, but this is one of the few stories I’ve come across where protagonists keeping secrets from each other makes some sense. Joanna doesn’t trust Antryg, because it looks like he was probably the guy who kidnapped her, and is perhaps behind all of the bad stuff going on. (She’s hanging around because he’s not immediately acting like a threat, and in hopes of getting him or Salteris to send her home.) Antryg doesn’t trust her, either, because he thinks she may be working with Suraklin, and doesn’t want her to know he suspects that Suraklin isn’t dead. Of course, they’re kindred souls, save each other’s lives a time or two, and so end up falling in love anyway…
- Magical Prime Directive — This is the biggie. If you’re born a mage in Ferryth, you have three options. You can join the Council, and get the best training in magic that there is, but you have to take Vows of, essentially, non-interference. In anything. Supposedly, this is because of terrible abuses of power by mages in the past. Your other options are to join the Church as a “Red Dog”, and get decent training, but not so awesome. Oh, and hunt down mages who either break their council vows or operate outside the council, so-called dog wizards, who get only scattered training from other dog wizards. This seems… immensely stupid. Perhaps a vow to do no harm would be better; it’d certainly be more useful, as well as broader magical education. The discussion of how power should be used is a minor theme, but really… denial doesn’t work so well. This is what got Antryg locked up — he saw some people rebelling, and decided it was a worthy cause…
- No such thing as Magic — And, despite all the stuff that went down when Suraklin was taken out, and the fact that magic is real… the majority of the population thinks that magic is a bunch of charlatanry. Well, except for the Old Believers (who are way too appreciative of mages) and some smaller segment of the population, with a larger fraction in the areas most affected by Suraklin. And apparently the Church likes it that way — they don’t want competition, or something. Which is why they often don’t go after dog wizards — because they tend to be so ineffective that they reinforce the myth. Still, when a guy can walk down the street and call up a fog, or make all the lights in a dungeon go out, or make you think you hear somebody calling your name… or even bigger things… it’s hard to see how so many people can live in denial.
P.S. — And yes, in this case, it does look like evil-Gandalf is trying to accomplish his goals with a gigantic Tesla coil…