I didn’t get that with Christopher Stasheff’s Her Majesty’s Wizard, the book I just finished reading. Didn’t think it was all that well written, for one thing – a lot of the battle stuff reads like bad Robert E. Howard, and as I’m working through REH’s Crusades stories, I’m reading good Robert E. Howard, plus Stasheff’s dialogue often felt overwritten – and for another, I didn’t like how magic was used in it.
The book opens with Matt, an ’80s college student, being pulled from our world into an alternate medieval Europe where magic and dragons exist. Matt stumbles into learning that you summon and use magic by saying poetry: for instance, he recites part of the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty, and creates a crowd of your tired, your poor, your huddled masses that causes confusion at a key moment and saves his butt. He becomes known as a wizard after figuring this out, and helps the rightful rulers of a European kingdom claim victory against usurpers.
Well, in November I read Eragon, another fantasy with magic and dragons and a young untested guy who learns to use that magic. But the way the magic was used really impressed me. In Eragon’s world, magic is summoned through ancient, powerful words, and how those words are strung together will create the power to do a particular magical act. It’s almost like a chemical process, combining elements to create something new (the figuring out of new combinations of the old words to create new effects is a big deal in Eragon). And that something new could be volatile. In other words, magic in Eragon can blow up in your face, almost literally; it’s very possible to mess up. And there’s a physical toll that magic takes on you, as well; you can use it perfectly correctly and still be so drained by the process that you could die. And this teenaged hero is learning it on the run. He makes mistakes, he hurts himself, he’s unsure if the next act is going to work. He screws up, and has to deal with any resulting damage.
In Her Majesty’s Wizard, Matt never screws up. He figures out what needs to happen, he says something rhyming (either doggerel made up on the spot or adapted Shakespeare or something), and the magic happens. But the magic he’s using is potentially so imprecise that the chance for mistakes seems greater. Magic somehow is shaped to the phrase he uses, but if it’s bad poetry (as it often is in the book, in my opinion), how can it be precise enough to do exactly what Matt wants? I just realized it reminded me of a lesson in Stephen King’s On Writing:
This business of meaning is a big deal. If you doubt it, think of all the times you’ve heard someone say “I just can’t describe it” or “That isn’t what I mean.” Think of all the times you’ve said those things yourself, usually in a tone of mild or serious frustration. The word is only a representation of the meaning; even at its best, writing almost always falls short of full meaning. (p. 118 of the hardcover)The closest to a mistake Matt makes in all this is when he causes an unexpected result: battling an army of mercenaries, he decides to distract the enemy soldiers by causing gold to appear on the battlefield, but the rhyme he makes up causes every piece of metal the enemy is using – armor, swords, shields – to turn into gold. Gold is soft. Steel is hard. The troops on Matt’s side pulverize the mercenaries, with their steel swords going through gold armor “like a knife through margarine.” Oops. But the result is still victory for Matt’s side. Not so much of an “oops,” huh? But what if he’d accidentally made everything metal into gold? What if the two sides in the battle were suddenly reduced to hitting each other over the head with gold and their fists and nothing else? I’m imagining that, and I’m laughing. I think that’s funny.
But nothing else even remotely like that happens in the rest of the book. So Matt’s always right except for that one moment; everything breaks his way, and he saves the kingdom and gets the girl. And there’s little suspense to that. And that’s partly because the magic is too easy.
I had other issues with Her Majesty’s Wizard – what seemed at first to be the potentially fascinating issue of a medieval Europe just coming out of a late Ice Age, with England connected to the mainland and the Moors never losing their foothold in the Iberian Peninsula, is made into an increasingly generic and non-specific Fantasyland (almost what Diana Wynne Jones made fun of in Tough Guide to Fantasyland) – but that was the biggest. curt_holman was kind enough to point out other works that make more interesting use of magic (like the similarly titled His Majesty’s Dragon, a story of the Napoleonic Wars if those wars included dragons), so that gives me more stuff to read that might be more my speed.
Uh-oh: that rhymed. ;-)