Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

Don Webb writes about...

Shadowy Forces

part 2

Julian Lawler’s Battle Seer

Julian Lawler’s Battle Seer is nearing its end. Theoretically it should conclude with chapter 20 in issue 142. Be that as it may, you’d think that the fifth act of the play would be under way by now. We have signs of it: Palance comes into his own in combat with invincible Alysses Slighthand, in chapter 14. Nomen’s lord Ian Dihn defeats the hyper-magical powers of the Rune Man in chapter 16, and Steward Argenal begins to tie up some historical loose ends in chapter 17.

However, the heroes and heroines have been fighting either a losing battle or have managed no better than a draw against the evil forces. Andina Lerouse, the Seer, not only hasn’t shown her stuff yet, we’re not sure what powers she may have. Nor can we foresee whether her role will be more than that of a central pawn on the chessboard, namely as Palance’s fiancée. So far, the key player has been Andina’s mage, Renson, whom we met for the first time, along with Andina, back in chapter 9.

The forces of Light — from Father Rayul to Palance to Andina to Ian Dihn — have one big problem: they don’t seem to know quite what they’re up against. They realize that various forces of darkness are arrayed against them: the Rune Man, Alysses Slighthand, shadowy characters offstage, raindogs, dremions, etc., and now, in chapter 18, zombies. The sequence of battles raises an essential question that as yet has no answer: What’s the point? What, exactly, are the forces of darkness, and what are they after?

By now, readers may be craving a little authorial omniscience, such as a peek into the dark forces’ command and general staff briefings to find out who’s in charge, what the strategy is, and who has designs on whom and for what. Wouldn’t that define the novel’s conflict once and for all?

But let’s look at the story from the angle of modern Realpolitik. The city of Nomen and the country of Geamehn are either under siege from a shadowy insurgency or are facing invasion by an equally shadowy foreign coalition. The defenders have no spies or intelligence services, nor can they tune in to the equivalent of CNN or Al-Jazira.

We share the heroes’ point of view for the most part, and they can only slog it out on the ground, one battle at a time. They’re all too well aware that the enemy is equipped with high-tech weaponry that they, the defenders, do not have: the dremions are an occupation force skilled in psychological warfare; the “blood fairies” of chapter 9 are “daisy cutter” sonic land mines; and the zombies resemble single-person armored assault vehicles.

Given such a scenario, how would you neutralize the aggressors’ powers? With Ian Dihn’s anti-magic dagger or with a popular uprising? The latter is not too far-fetched: on the world stage, the force of numbers has sometimes overcome superior armament, particularly in the post-colonial era of the 20th century.

Copyright © 2005 by Don Webb for Bewildering Stories

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