I recently read The Time of the Dark — one of Barbara Hambly‘s books.
It’s one of her earlier books, so the plot is a little bit less complex (although the characters are still excellent).
I wouldn’t be writing about it here, except that for one interesting question that came to me while I was reading it: why are people transported into fantasy realms so often instant experts?
In this particular novel, two characters get drawn from our world into a conflict in a parallel reality. One of them is a graduate student, and the other is an artist. Each of them picks up a big skill shortly after they arrive in the new world of magic.
As ever, spoilers abound below.
This time around, Antryg gets summoned back for Ferryth by the Council of Wizards. Despite his reticence, he eventually goes along with it since Joanna’s been abducted. The wizards want him, with his knowledge of the Void, to help solve an ongoing catastrophe involving way, way too many Gates opening uncontrollably to other worlds. Of course, they all deny knowing where Joanna is…
1. Obligatory Power Down — Antryg, as declared by the villain of the last two books, is the most powerful wizard in the world. So, obviously, we have to do something about that. To the point of introducing the Master Spells possessed by the Archmage, just so Antryg can be put under a geas that prevents him from using his magic to solve the problem immediately. This seems a bit dumb on the part of the wizards, since he’s much less effective at finding the source of the problem, but he does pretty well for himself anyway. Partly because of the Master Spells, and because of the repetition of “not using my superpowers” from the first two books, this feels forced.
2. Why the Exploit is Tricky — Leaving entirely aside the problem of politics and diplomacy, the exploit Michael mentioned before has a technical problem that shows up now. In particular, the wizards have started working on it, experimenting with making Gates to other world. But they’re doing it where a bunch of ley lines converge. This would imply a certain amount of stupidity on the part of the wizards, especially since they keep scrying to carefully make sure that no unintended Gates or abominations or whatever show up. … and then somebody props a Gate open. And keeps it hidden. For a couple of months. Apparently, the consequences of this are an increasing number of Gates popping up at random everywhere along the ley lines, letting in everything from waters to monsters to airborne toxins to local alterations of the laws of magic and physics… and the rate is accelerating. Oops. Of course, none of this is quantified, so it’s hard to tell if this is consistent with the minutes-duration Gates we’ve seen before.
3. Why Are We Not Dead? — So, Gates are opening up to lots of worlds. And doing things. Why are there no gates that open up to worlds where, say, the strong force is so much weaker that everything disintegrates? Or an airless world, sucking away the atmosphere? Or otherwise rapidly dooming anybody dumb enough to get close? Also, Joanna had to do CPR on Antryg after that last monster. And he was getting up and walking around after that?
4. You Fail Biology Forever — NineTenTwo/the Dead God (the poor alien is referred to by both names; his full name gets translated as a messy alphanumerical designation) shows back up again, helpfully bringing along a bunch of his technology along with him. Including breathing apparatus. He’s got a fascinating description, actually — start with a bigger-than-human sized dragon. Make it walk on two legs, and remove the wings. Now mummify it. Give it a strange glowy thing above the eyes, which is also apparently part of what it uses to speak, and remove the mouth. Put hardened claws on the end of all four arms; put one mouth inside each of the upper two arms, and small long/tentacles for manipulating objects. And… yeah. This is pretty absurd. At least it’s not actually flying. And the psychokinesis from the previous book seems to have disappeared… maybe that only works when it’s a disembodied spirit… but now I’m just making excuses.
5. Genre Blindness — Witchfinder Silvorglim, I’m looking at you. Sure, you’re obsessed with the idea that all wizards except those “saved” by the Church are the incarnation of evil… but trying to wipe them out when they have just as much to lose from all the nastiness that’s been happening just doesn’t quite make sense. And Seldes Katne… wow. I’m sorry, Seldes, why did you think using some dangerous ancient magical devices to hold a Gate open was a good idea? You wanted to maintain the reality field where your magic went from “low power” to having having the power to back all of your knowledge? Fine. If you had that power, and enough to open a Gate to abduct Joanna to motivate Antryg to help you (though the other wizards got to him first), why didn’t you just open a Gate to go through to that world in the first place? Particularly since that’s what you let Antryg do for you at the end, even after you were responsible for all the badness?
6. Genre Savvy — I’ll leave the series on a high note, since at least the protagonists tend to be delightfully pragmatic. Near the end of the story, Antryg is considering leaving Joanna, since he keeps drawing down all sorts of crazy on her. Her response? “Whether or not you come back to LA, you know that if the Council comes looking for you, they’re going to start with me anyway. This way, instead of being apart and miserable, we can both get laid while we’re waiting for the next disaster.”
And now it’s time for book 2, particularly since The Silent Tower ended on a cliffhanger. Though the spoilers are rather less epic than for the first book… watch out.
This book is pretty much the continuation of the last one. Our heroine, Joanna, does a bunch of hacking of the Suraklin’s stuff (he who body-snatched her jerk of a boyfriend). She gets a bunch of supplies, and follows him back through the Void to Ferryth to rescue Antryg and save both worlds from his evil plan to download himself into a computer built by Gary pre-body-snatching, powered by draining all the magic and hope out of both our world and theirs. (Epic spoiler: They succeed in saving the day.)
And now, the good, the bad, and the ugly:
1. Crazy Prepared — Joanna tries to do this before she heads back to Ferryth. Renaissance-type dress to pass for normal? Check. Gold and small gems purchased with a small slice of the bad guy’s supplies, to trade for local currency? Knife? Check. .38 colt? Check. Massive printout of bad guy code that she hasn’t had time to finish studying yet? Check. (This was the 80s. Nowadays, I assume she’d take a laptop and spare batteries.) Flashlight? Floppy with a worm to destroy the bad guy’s computer of evil? Saw, and spare carbide blades, for breaking Antryg out? Check, check, check. She later berates herself for forgetting to pack a better coat. I approve.
2. The Idiot Ball — Thankfully, the characters don’t play with this too much. Joanna’s baseline plan is “Hack computer; have the worm eat it.” Antry has “use the anti-magic device that was previously used to chain me up” as his plan, as backup to Joanna’s… which gets used when bad-guy Suraklin uses a little lightning to wipe the floppy. And, in addition to fighting the heroes with his massive magic skills, he imported a machine gun. His computer? Has a backup power supply, so if something goes wrong, he has time to zap people and then fix the problem. During the “gray periods,” when all hope (and much sanity, and the ability to do magic) is drained from everybody, people do carry the idiot ball sometimes… often, actually, but at least there’s an external excuse.
3. Now Introducing World #3 — Remember those holes in the Void due to due much interworld travel? One of them (finally) accidentally dumps an intelligent alien into Ferryth. Which is awesome. He’s a technician working on interdimensional travel who got curious. Unfortunately, he can’t breath the air. Fortunately, his body doesn’t decay and he can use his psychic power as a disembodied spirit. Unfortunately, he ends up a messed-up and confused poltergeist, munching on humans for their psychic energy, which makes him sick, and possessing their bodies, which also screws him up big time. He tries to reconstruct a body like his own using the corpses of humans worshiping him as the Dead God, which results in a monstrosity with four arms and a couple of ribs for incisors and … okay, TMI. This is generally well done, including the vagaries of the translation spell (for instance, “quantum” makes sense to Joanna, but not to Antryg). The main issue I have with this part? To try to talk him down, Joanna tries to remind him of his roots — by tapping out familiar number. Like pi, and Planck’s constant. Which is great… except she taps in base ten. Apparently, the alien guys use base ten, too. Which is strangely lucky. For that reason, sequences of integers like primes or the Fibonacci sequence would be a better choice in such a situation.
4. Power Problems — The issue here is Caris. Because Antryg is being hunted down, if he uses his magic for anything big in most of the story, our heroes will be toast. So, while they’re in the guise of being a doctor, student, and assistant, Caris (as the student) has to get enough information from Antryg to save a woman’s life. I am… impressed that Caris is able to pull this off. Granted, we’ve known Caris was mageborn from the beginning, and Antryg’s been giving him some proper teaching, but the closing-off-blood-vessels thing is more than we (or he, apparently) knew he could pull off. There’s a reference made later, to his grandfather stating he would have made a better healer than a warrior, but it still seems a bit out of the blue.
5. More Power — At least in Antryg’s case, the first book made a point of stating that he was the most powerful mage in the world. (As stated by Suraklin, no less.) In some sense, the big fight scene at the end is nicely done. Rather than having the big, flashy scene, a lot of it is purely countermagic — Antryg holding off the ever-increasing number of computer-powered spells until he and Joanna can get to it. After all, in real life, it’d only take one fireball to kill you. The problem here? Suraklin’s already uploaded. Supposedly, this means all magic is being drained from everywhere. Or, in other words… no mage can do magic except for Suraklin-the-computer. Which means Antryg should be helpless. There’s some comment in the first book where Antryg implies he’s at least resistant to the effect, due to having worked with Suraklin and being kind of nuts so that he can still do magic, since he still has hope. That doesn’t seem an adequate explanation.
6. Entropy Always Wins — How they end up beating Suraklin. They bust up his magic-draining power supply, so that he’s stuck running on battery power. They wait, resisting his magic and various attempts to kill them off, until his power runs out and he gets completely cut off from every other world, lost in the Void. (Presumably, had they died, he’d have worked on fixing himself. He then blows himself up, since being lost forever cut off from everything isn’t what he signed up for.) This ends up working with a rather nice theme about the Dead God — who died because that way he could be one with nothing, and win when the universe dies. Well, not nice, but you get the idea. But, regardless — it was a nice touch.
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…