Her Majesty’s Wizard, by Christopher Stasheff – I saw this book on a list of recommendations somewhere, and I didn’t realize at the time that the author had just died in June. This is the first book of the Wizard in Rhyme series, about a doctoral student named Matthew Mantrell who finds himself transported to an alternate medieval Europe where magic is real. He figures out how magic operates and becomes a wizard, casting spells through the use of verses, either famous poems that are relevant to his situation or ones he makes up on the fly. The idea of someone from our world scientifically determining the laws of magic in a fantastic world reminds me of L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s Harold Shea stories, and it turns out he actually collaborated on a few of those after Pratt’s death (and after this book). It’s also clear that medieval Catholicism is not only completely true in this world, but in its simplest form, with the Devil directly interfering in daily events and priests having a lot of power. Stasheff was himself Catholic, and said that it bothered him that fantasy set in the medieval world tended to ignore religion, when it was such a significant part of life then. I’m sure part of that is because taking a stand on such things, whether for or against, can potentially offend readers, not to mention that it can often be more fun for authors to make up their own religions. But I think that, although the Christianity in this alternate world likely reflected Stasheff’s own views in many ways, he did take it to extremes with how literal everyone was about it. Divine right is also a wholly accurate philosophy there, although it does depend on whether a royal is doing something political or personal; if the latter, they’re still fallible. Anyway, the plot concerns Matt’s adventures in Merovence, the equivalent of France, which has been taken over by a sorcerer in league with Hell who has installed a puppet king and locked up the rightful heir to the throne, Princess Alisande. Matt rescues her and also teams up with a knight, a reformed seductress, a werewolf priest, and a dragon who gets drunk on his own flame to take back the kingdom. While the action isn’t as interesting as the philosophy, it’s a pretty good story. I’ve started on the sequel, The Oathbound Wizard. I’ve seen the cover from the edition I checked out from the library, illustrated by Daniel Horne, on at least one list of bad fantasy covers. The weird thing is that Matt reminds me of an old picture of my dad.
Deathless, by Catherynne Valente – Based on the old Russian folk tale of Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless, it takes the story into twentieth-century history with the Russian Revolution and World War II. It’s fantastic but bleak, mixing beings from folklore into the harsh realities of life in the Soviet Union. After being educated by various magical creatures, Marya marries Koschei, and comes to live on the magical island of Buyan. Baba Yaga, who here drives a car on chicken legs, tells Marya that Koschei has been lying to her and he’d had many lovers in the past, reliving the same basic story over and over again. While Marya tries to turn against the narrative, she ends up being caught up in it, falling in love with a soldier named Ivan Nikolayevich and returning to her old home in Leningrad with him, while still retaining feelings for Koschei. The narrative is confusing in spots, but there are a lot of interesting aspects to it, including the interpretation of some of the main mythical figures as mystical tsars who battle for control of the world. Some others have adjusted to the changing times, like a dragon who does execution paperwork for the Communist Party. There’s a part where Marya spends time in an unchanging village created by a magic bird, along with alternate versions of Tsar Nicholas II, Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and Rasputin, all of whom get along. Finally, Baba Yaga insists that the Tsar of Death has won, and magic has died out, but there’s still a certain amount of ambiguity.
An Artificial Night, by Seanan McGuire – The third October Daye novel has Toby investigating missing children and entering the domain of Blind Michael, leader of the Wild Hunt, who kidnaps kids to make them join in the ride. In the case of mortals, they become the horses. The rules of his realm are childish in nature, and Toby uses the “how many miles to Babylon” rhyme to reach it, with help from the Luidaeg. The verse also features in Diana Wynne Jones’s Deep Secret. Also featured is Toby’s Fetch, a duplicate of someone who comes into existence when that person is about to die. Toby doesn’t die, however, and instead makes friends with the Fetch, whose name is May. As with other books in the series, McGuire mixes actual fairy lore with her own inventions, with Blind Michael resembling Herne the Hunter in leading the Wild Hunt and having antlers.