Mazes, Memory, and Magic

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke – This is the first thing I’ve read by this author, and it was pretty fascinating. The protagonist and narrator is called Piranesi after the eighteenth century Italian artist and archaeologist (not that he knows that), although he realizes it probably isn’t his real name. He lives in a strange maze of rooms filled with statues, which is the entire world as far as he knows; and he makes it his goal to document as much about it as he can. The only other living person he sees is a guy he calls the Other, who shows up once a week to converse with him. There are some dead people throughout the House, however, and he takes care of their bodies. When other humans do show up, he has to look back through his own journals to find out who he was before coming to this place, how he arrived there, and whom he can trust. I appreciate the way it reveals a little at a time, and it all makes sense eventually…well, aside from how this otherworldly maze exists at all.

Mazirian the Magician, by Jack Vance – The first book in the Dying Earth series is a collection of loosely connected stories involving a future Earth that is…well, dying. Magic is pretty common there, but casting spells is a difficult matter. People have also colonized other planets, or at least other worlds of some sort. Most of the characters we follow aren’t particularly likeable, often being sexist and self-centered, although part of that could be a result of the bleak world they live in. The last and longest story, “Guyal of Sfere,” has the most interesting main character, who isn’t a magician but does seek arcane knowledge. The prose was a bit dense, seemingly common among traditional fantasy and science fiction authors, but there were some interesting ideas and an interesting take on this post-apocalyptic world. One reason I was interested in reading this is that I know it was influential on role-playing games, and small wonder, as the stories are largely about people going on quests. I’ve heard that Dungeons & Dragons uses what’s called a Vancian magic system, where a magician can only memorize a certain number of spells at a time, and casting one causes the person to immediately forget it. The first Final Fantasy game, which was largely based on D&D, has a magic system that’s sort of similar, but not exactly the same, because you don’t forget a spell after casting it. Instead, what happens is that there are certain levels of spell (another D&D thing), and each magic-worker only has a certain amount of charges for each level, although they can all be recharged by staying at an inn. Later games in this and other RPG series tend to prefer the mana pool system, where each spell costs a certain amount of points to cast, with more powerful spells generally taking more power. But I’ve recently started playing Final Fantasy VIII, which does measure how many times a character can cast one particular spell, although there are ways to recharge them while out and about. I do remember that the first RPG I ever played, Tunnels of Doom for the Texas Instruments 99/4A, had spell scrolls that a wizard can only use once each. Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic jokes about the Vancian style when Rincewind tells the iconograph imp, “It takes three months to commit even a simple [spell] to memory, and then once you’ve used it, poof! it’s gone. That’s what’s so stupid about the whole magic thing, you know. You spend twenty years learning the spell that makes nude virgins appear in your bedroom, and then you’re so poisoned by quicksilver fumes and half blind from reading old grimoires that you can’t remember what happens next.” I can’t really think of an instance in the Discworld books where magic actually works like that, but this was the first, and Terry hadn’t worked everything out yet. And I suppose Rincewind, who’s notoriously bad at magic, has reason to be bitter about the whole thing. Summoning nude virgins does sound like something a Vancian wizard would want to do, though.

The Phantom of the Opera, by Gaston Leroux – I was interested in reading this after having recently seen the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical on Broadway. It’s a fairly short book, or at least it felt like it. Leroux was a journalist who had heard a lot of accounts and rumors about the Palais Garnier in Paris, and partially based the story on these. It’s kind of a mystery and kind of a horror story, and written in a rather journalistic style. As we all know, no one writes like Gaston. The book includes a detective character who didn’t make it into the musical. He’s called the Persian, because that was apparently an acceptable thing to call a person in that day and age, and is introduced as a mysterious man who’s always hanging around the opera house. Later in the book, he takes over the narrative to provide exposition. Originally a policeman for He followed the Phantom to Paris, and is aware of his crimes, but is also impressed by his genius in music and engineering and seems to think he’s capable of reformation. The part of the 2004 film of the musical where the Phantom plays the violin at Christine’s father’s grave comes from the book. It’s possible that sort of thing is typical of such film adaptations, like how the Les Miserables film added in a few background elements from the novel that weren’t in the stage production. The Phantom having been in a freak show is also in the book…sort of. It did happen, but he also went on to design all kinds of mechanical contraptions and torture chambers, and had his own contracting firm that worked on the opera house. That’s how he was able to install all the trapdoors, secret passages, and such. On this note, it’s interesting that Madame Giry seems to know about the Phantom’s past in the musical, while in the book she’s fairly clueless, but helps him because he’s told her he can get Meg married into royalty. The opera managers temporarily suspect her of being the ghost. The Phantom, Erik, is described as a walking skeleton with glowing eyes, while the musical version only has a facial deformity that we don’t see. The Persian suggests that, since Erik was treated as less than human, he didn’t feel the need to act humanely. Christine pities him, but also comes to be terrified of him. Also, it’s explained that Raoul, the younger brother of a count, had been a sailor and was planning on making a voyage to the North Pole. I guess this has been more of a comparison of different versions of the story than an actual review, but I hope it still works.

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3 Responses to Mazes, Memory, and Magic

  1. rocketdave says:

    I haven’t read Piranesi (in fact, I didn’t know about it until now) and I’m often skittish when it comes to making recommendations, but I feel reasonably confident in saying that if you liked that book, there’s a very good chance you’d also enjoy Susanna Clarke’s debut novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

  2. Pingback: Put a Zork in It | VoVatia

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