Sunday, May 10, 2015

A Future of Blood, Fire, and Monsters

John Christopher, whose work I’ve blogged about here before, achieved his fame as a writer of dystopian fiction for young adults, several decades before it became cool. His most famous books, the Tripods novels, have been translated into eight languages and adapted into a BBC series. His best works, however, are almost certainly the three volumes of the Sword of the Spirits trilogy (1970-72), which while written for teenagers have enough plot-layering and thematic sophistication to appeal to the most literate adults. I am pleased to see that Simon and Schuster has recently brought the series back into print.

Like the Tripods books, the Sword trilogy (The Prince in Waiting, Beyond the Burning Lands, and Sword of the Spirits) offers the reader a world where all is not as it seems. Luke Perry*, the trilogy’s viewpoint character, lives in what resembles a medieval fantasy kingdom, a cold and violent land of warring walled cities, of brave knights and dwarf craftsmen and deformed mutant servants, and of mysterious Seers with arcane powers. At the edges of this barbarous civilization prowl horrible monsters and tribesmen with savage customs. To the north, fearsome volcanoes light the skies and block explorers from the southern cities.

It all sounds rather like a Robert Howard novel, but gradually Christopher reveals that he is telling not a fantasy story but a post-apocalyptic one. Two centuries before Luke’s time, a global natural disaster destroyed the industrial civilization of our own era, and solar flares flooded the world with radiation, producing the dwarves, mutants, and monstrous animals that make the new world a fantastic distortion of the old. The survivors of the disaster, believing it the result of nuclear war, turned against the machine civilization they blamed for producing it. One group, however, retained knowledge of the age of machines, which it kept hidden in hopes of one day reintroducing science and industry to a more stable society. Savvier SF fans will have already figured out that this group was the Seers, ostensibly the defenders of the new era’s religious faith and of its people’s animus against technology. Like the rest of Luke’s world, they have a double identity; they also have a secret plan.

Luke, who at the start of the trilogy is mainly interested in ice-skating and in winning his home city’s annual tournament, learns only gradually that the Seers intend to use him and his father to advance their agenda.With their help, the elder Perry mounts a coup that puts him on the throne of Winchester, with Luke his Spirit-nominated successor. Later, Perry Sr. turns his attention to conquering neighboring cities, with the goal of creating a unified kingdom - one into which the Seers can reintroduce the old civilization. The new order, however, is jealous of its privileges and customs, and it has strong defenders, including the princes of other cities and Luke's amiable but ambitious half-brother Peter. When the ensuing storm of fire, blood, and treachery subsides, much of the Perry family lies dead and Luke finds himself in exile, hiding with the Seers in their Wiltshire sanctuary.

By the end of Prince in Waiting, more perceptive or mature readers will have noticed that there is something seriously wrong with Luke. He is short-tempered, prone to deep depression, and terrified of humiliation, which drives him to stupid risk-taking and stupider fights. One could lay some of the blame for this on Luke's parents, on his self-destructive father and his vapid, narcissistic mother. However, the violent social environment in which Luke matures gives him little opportunity for self-reflection, and rewards some of his dumber risk-taking, like his near-suicidal fight with the flesh-dissolving bayemot in Beyond the Burning Lands

If that second novel of the trilogy is less engaging than the first, it probably stems from Christopher's turn away from Luke's inner life and struggle with his personal demons. The author instead uses the middle novel of the trilogy to advance the series's plot and enlarge its setting. Luke reconciles himself with Winchester's new ruler, accompanies a diplomatic party across the volcanic Burning Lands, and visits the city of Klan Gothlan in the land of the Wilsh. He and his southern companions express their wonder at and disgust with these odd people who prefer good food and art to fighting, who use simple machines and accept polymufs as equals. Dumb luck allows Luke to defeat the bayemot, and the Wilsh king, Cymru, takes a liking to this strange little wolverine in human form, and even offers him the hand of his daughter Blodwen. (Blodwen, one of Christopher's few decent female characters, expresses an ambivalent opinion of the match.) At the book's end, pressed to the wall by a treason conviction, Luke wins the crown of Winchester by combat, and reaches the peak of his fortunes.

And then everything goes to hell.

(To Be Continued...) 

* No relation to the actor, as far as we know.

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