If you liked Eric Flint’s 1634 books, if you liked The Chronicles of Narnia, if you liked… Well let’s just start with those two, because Sword of the Bright Lady deals in surprising juxtapositions of familiar tropes.
At times I wondered whether it dealt in anything deeper. I’ve concluded that it does. This is a fun book and it feels like it was fun to write. The author’s acknowledgments note that it took three months to write and ten years to revise. Am I churlish to wish the revision had gone one step further?
What works here works beautifully. Less than a day after I finished reading, I had to go back and prove to myself that the narration was in the third person, because I remembered Christopher’s adventures with first-person clarity, as if they had happened to me.
Christopher went out to walk his dogs one Arizona night and woke up in the snowy hinterlands of another world. His rescuers, an earthy old churchman and his orphaned servant girl, nurse him back to health, though they have no common language with him. When he’s well enough to pick up some of the household work, he tries practicing kata from his martial arts practice back home. Before he knows it, he’s challenged to a duel by a local nobleman, blessed by a language spell that allows him to understand exactly how much danger he’s in, and claimed by the local war god.
At first, Christopher insists that he’s an everyman, not famous back home nor expected to be famous by anyone who knew him there. But as he begins to see how he can help the people who have saved him, he accepts the identity the villagers thrust on him: “Crazy Pater Christopher, who never means what everyone else means.” He sets about industrializing his feudal neighbors — who all have lively personalities and complex lives — preparing them for the spring’s military campaign, because the war god Marcius has promised to return Christopher home to his beloved wife… um… what was her name again?
And that brings us to a sticking point I have to talk about. It’s not that M.C. Planck has done anything uncommonly wrong here, but rather that he’s fallen into a classic blunder that I see committed all over the place, but that nobody seems to talk about.
Let’s call it the Precious Ming Vase Problem.
It’s easiest to spot in previews for Hollywood Blockbusters. The most extraordinary acts of violence, on the most extraordinary scale, get their justification from this one thing: They killed his wife, and now he’s coming for payback. Does it matter what the wife was like? What she thought? What she did with her free time? Even Hollywood, though, usually gives a line or two of the film itself to those details, to maintain the illusion that the lost wife justifies the hero’s actions. Seriously, though, the wife is a sort of McGuffin-after-the-fact. For all that the audience can feel her as an individual person, she might as well have been an inanimate object the whole time: They broke his precious Ming vase, and now he’s coming for payback. Is anything lost in the translation?
We believe Christopher truly loves his wife, not just because he overcomes his palpable distress when he commits real acts of violence, but because of his extraordinary fidelity to a woman he may not live to see again. Nobody in his new world, male or female, would expect him to keep chaste until he gets home, and some can only explain his spousal devotion as one more form of crazy in Crazy Pater Christopher’s arsenal.
I wanted to believe his wife was worth it. Instead, the only detail we ever learn about Maggie is that she has red hair. Planck never tells us how Christopher met her, what made her laugh, what she did for a job or what she might have done instead of one, what she liked to talk about with her husband. She’s functionally indistinguishable from a precious Ming vase. Christopher worries that his vase might be broken in his absence, longs to gaze upon its porcelain beauty once again, would never do anything that might break it.
And once I noticed that, I noticed that Christopher doesn’t seem to miss or worry about anyone else. No parents, children, best friends, colleagues, no human connections of any kind. For that matter, he doesn’t worry about his dogs. Now, he drove out to the desert for goodness sake, away from any human dwellings, at night, to walk those dogs, and then disappeared before he could bring them home. He never gives a moment’s thought to what might have happened to them when he vanished.
Maybe the vagueness of Christopher’s ties to home are a clue. Maybe he believes he’s from another world, and knows what we know here, and that’s all an illusion. Maybe he’ll turn out in some future volume to be some farm boy plucked from obscurity by the god Marcius and blessed with false memories that will allow him to save a people from obliteration.
Or maybe Planck just didn’t think it through. I don’t think it’s a problem with female characters, because the feudal world Christopher lands in has many female characters, all of them different from each other, most of them drawn with clarity and enthusiasm, and a couple of them heroic and crucial to the story. Why didn’t Planck extend his strength at conveying character to the one who, we are to believe, is the main motive for everything that happens on stage? Why, for that matter, didn’t his editors notice this glaring hole in the book’s heart? The entire problem could have been solved with one paragraph of perhaps ten sentences in an early chapter, and twenty or so sentences scattered through later chapters. It could have been an afternoon’s work.
If I ever meet M.C. Planck, I will owe him a drink, or a cup of coffee, or…what if he’s Mormon and can’t have caffeine or alcohol? In any case, I’ll owe him a gesture of contrition. It’s not his fault there’s a tradition in adventure stories, whatever their genres, of treating women as Precious Ming Vases. It’s just rare that one sees a case so perfectly exemplary of a problem that doesn’t need to happen at all.
Let’s return to the book’s virtues, which are many. The feudal world of the story is not a mere rehashing of our world’s Middle Ages, but is a place where magic forms its own economy. That magical economy warps, and sometimes supersedes, the economy of money, goods, and labor, in ways that are as natural as breathing to the characters who were born there. Christopher, however, is as bewildered at the speed with which peasants calculate the cost of calling the dead back to life as the peasants are when he introduces them to the idea of paper money. Magic is science there, and trade good, and service for hire, and fungible.
The result is a persuasive working economy with enough unpredictability that Christopher genuinely doesn’t know what results he’ll get when he throws assembly-line methods or war bonds into the mix. In that sense, he’s doing something different from, say, Flint in the 1634 series, because our modern hero can’t trust easily in his modern instruments. And of course, Planck’s doing things Lewis would never have done. Though Planck gives us an everyman chosen by a god as uniquely equipped to save a nation from evil, one can hardly imagine the Pevensie children industrializing Narnia for its own good. Christopher doesn’t just act on the scale of the individual on his knowledge of modern science and ideas; he remakes an unambiguously magical world in the image of ours, entirely without repentance or angst about whether the magic will fade away.
The magic is quite systematized and bureaucratized, with levels and promotions at times a little too reminiscent of RPGs. What balanced out the RPGness of it all, for me, was Planck’s descriptions of Christopher’s internal experience as the object of some of the spells. How disorienting might it be to suffer a mortal injury, only to be restored immediately to vibrant health? The emotional trauma of taking the wound remains, at least for Christopher. He can work some small measure of magic, himself, after a few of his ordeals. His efforts to map the theory and practice of magic onto the more familiar fields of mechanical and software engineering give the book some of its laugh lines.
Though the portal fantasy, as a sub-genre, has been overplayed, there clearly is still life in it, still room for new things to be done. Sword of the Bright Lady ends just a breath beyond a cliff-hanger. Christopher figures out, in the moment between frying pan and fire, what his friends and his god need him to do. If he can’t do it fast, the next volume’s body count will be high and heartbreaking. With his enemies beginning to understand some of his modern technology, he’s going to have to get creative about how he uses it. I want to see Crazy Pater Christopher get even crazier. I want to gawk like a peasant at what he comes up with next.
Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. The Trafficking in Magic, Magicking in Traffic anthology she coedited with David Sklar includes stories from James Enge, Elizabeth Bear, and Darrell Schweitzer. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.