Wednesday, 30 August 2000

Christopher Stasheff: The Witch Doctor (1994)

Edition: Del Rey, 1994
Review number: 591

The third of Stasheff's Wizard in Rhyme series almost completely ignores the characters introduced in the first two novels. Indeed, it reprises a good deal of the plot of the first one, Her Majesty's Wizard, with a different central character, as Saul Bremener looks into the disappearance of his friend Matt Mantrell, finds the parchment Matt had been working on before he vanished, becomes obsessed with it in turn, and finds himself in a fantasy universe. He is meant to save the kingdom of Allustria from its usurping monarch, just as Matt was brought to the neighbouring country of Merovence to do the same thing there.

As in the other two novels, much of the interest in The Witch Doctor is derived from the way in which Stasheff takes medieval Catholic doctrine seriously. Here, it is much better integrated into the plot than it was before; the earlier novels tended to use it over frequently as an easy way out of a tight corner. Stasheff helps himself through Saul's attitude to it, formed by a rejected strict religious upbringing which leads him to initially be contemptuous of the idea that Christianity could have any meaning, and a strong determination to be his own man rather than doing the bidding of God or the Devil.

At the same time, however, the plotting is very formulaic, as characters move from one puzzle to the next as though they were taking part in a role playing game rather than a novel. The characters themselves are ciphers, even Saul being far too much like a replay of Matt. The novel is rather like the later part of the Xanth series by Piers Anthony in this respect, though it thankfully avoids most of the awful puns that are so important there.

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