Vintage Treasures: Chronicles of the Twelve Kingdoms by Esther M. Friesner

Vintage Treasures: Chronicles of the Twelve Kingdoms by Esther M. Friesner

Mustapha and His Wise Dog and Spells of Mortal Weaving
(Avon, July 1985 and May 1986). Cover art by Richard Bober

Esther M. Friesner is one of the most prolific and popular writers of modern fantasy, with dozens of novels and over 200 short stories to her credit. She’s been nominated for a Hugo Award, and won two Nebula Awards for her short fiction. Her debut novel, Mustapha and His Wise Dog, appeared in July 1985, and the following year she was named the Outstanding New Fantasy Writer of 1986 by Romantic Times. It kicked off a popular series that ran for four volumes and came to be known as the Chronicles of the Twelve Kingdoms.

Mustapha and His Wise Dog is an entertaining fantasy in the style of the Arabian Knights, about a young man cast out by his bothers and destined to wander the world with only his faithful talking dog Elcolog for company. Fortunately for Mustapha, Elcolog turns out to be significantly smarter than anyone he meets on his encounters and, fortunately for readers, the wisecracking Elcolog turns out to be one of the most entertaining and lovable characters in modern fantasy.

[Click on the images for wiser versions.]

Back covers to Mustapha and His Wise Dog and Spells of Mortal Weaving

Mustapha and His Wise Dog was also one of the few fantasies with an Arabian setting on the shelves in the mid-80s.

In a wide-ranging interview at Fantasy Hive in 2018, Jonathan Thornton asked Kij Johnson how the field of fantasy had changed during her career, and Mustapha and His Wise Dog was one of the books she credited with helping move the field away from Tolkienesque fantasy.

Fantasy specifically was dominated by the Ballentine Tolkien that came out in the 70’s. We had Lin Carter’s Fantasy series, and that was sort of an attempt to redress that… essentially there was a shape called The Lord Of The Rings, and everyone was colouring inside those lines… Then urban fantasy really started to kick in, and to my mind one of the most important of the urban fantasy books was War For The Oaks (1987) by Emma Bull…

I think another real trend that started in the 70s and 80s started out as a kind of orientalist impulse. Esther Friesner wrote a really good book called Mustapha And His Wise Dog (1985), which is set in a sort of mythic Arabian Nights world, and everyone at that point was kind of experimenting with, and essentially that’s what I did, I wrote a story set in ancient Japan…

Unlike many popular fantasy series of the 80s and 90s, however, the Chronicles of the Twelve Kingdoms quickly went out of print, and tragically many modern readers are completely unaware of it.

The Witchwood Cradle and The Water King’s Laughter (Avon Books,
March 1987 and October 1989). Cover art by Richard Bober and Keith Parkinson

Most modern readers who give it a chance discover they quite enjoy it, however. Although Mustapha and His Wise Dog has a paltry six reviews at Goodreads, the few that are there are broadly positive. Here’s a enthusiastic review by Derek, from 2018.

An entertaining and frothy fantasy in a Middle-Eastern fairy tale mode… It is, more or less, the picaresque adventures of a boy and his dog, as they travel the world to seek their fortune. It never quite solidifies into a single plot, other than following through a half-baked goal of Mustapha’s to cure his companion of the magical ability to turn human.

But you get deep into the story and realize that a greater game is already afoot: the dread Morgeld plots against a benevolent warlock, and Mustapha and Elcoloq stumble into the middle of it. Presumably more of that will feature in the rest of the Twelve Kingdom stories.

Elcoloq, the wise dog of the title, turns out to be both the brains of the outfit and more of the rogue.

The later novels did, in fact, become longer and more ambitious as they series wore on. Intriguingly, each book follows a different cast of characters, though they largely revolve around the mounting menace of Morgeld, The Evil One, culminating in volume III, The Witchwood Cradle.

Back covers for The Witchwood Cradle and The Water King’s Laughter

Here’s our friend Derek’s very fine capsule review of The Witchwood Cradle.

Each book in the Twelve Kingdoms series has an entirely different cast, minus minor or cameo appearances, so it feels like you start over for each one. The delicious idea is that this story, the menace of Morgeld, is larger than one set of characters and larger than one battle front.

The arc is grand, but each component feels intimate. This is not a conflict of armies, but of heroes and strange, subtle machinations of prophecy, and the unbearably tragic results. Morgeld’s game plan is to wreak chaos and despair at a personal level, and Basoni’s ultimate solution is both astonishing and appropriate considering that the villain is revealed to be less ‘evil’ than ‘profoundly broken.’

I have no idea where this could possibly go from here.

The series had only one more installment, The Water King’s Laughter, featuring the misadventures of the inept minstrel Timeo.

Here’s the complete publishing details.

Mustapha and His Wise Dog (175 pages, $2.95 in paperback, July 1985) — cover by Richard Bober
Spells of Mortal Weaving (215 pages, $2.95 in paperback, May 1986) — cover by Richard Bober
The Witchwood Cradle (241 pages, $3.50 in paperback, March 1987) — cover by Richard Bober
The Water King’s Laughter (283 pages, $3.95 in paperback, October 1989) — cover by Keith Parkinson

All four volumes were paperback originals published by Avon Books. They have never been reprinted, and there are no digital editions.

Our previous coverage of Esther M. Friesner includes:

Mustapha And His Wise Dog (2014)
Birthday Reviews: Esther M. Friesner’s Miranda’s Muse” by Steven H Silver (2018)
Random Reviews: “Twelve-Steppe Program,” by Esther Friesner by Steven H Silver (2022)

See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.

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Joshua Moore

And I just bought Mustapha and His Wise Dog off Amazon. You made this sound so enticing. I hope it lives up to the hype.

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