Friday, 22 June 2007

Mercedes Lackey, Eric Flint and Dave Freer: This Rough Magic (2003)

Published: Baen, 2003

It took me a long time - around two hundred and fifty pages of reading - to get into This Rough Magic, and yet I ended up enjoying it immensely. I picked this up in the local library, without looking at it too closely, and didn't even realise that it is the second in a series.

The central part of the plot is about a (fictional) siege of the citadel on the island of Corfu in 1539, when it was held by the Venetians. The Hungarians, led by the evil King Emeric and manipulated by the Grand Duke Jagellion of Lithuania who is a demon in human flesh, carry out the attack in alliance with the Byzantines. The Corfu garrison has been regarded as something of a backwater by the Venetians, despite the island's strategic position (controlling the entrance to the Adriatic, at the other end of which Venice herself lies). Among those trapped in the citadel are the main characters, including the wild young Venetian Benito Valdosta who is the hero of This Rough Magic.

The last paragraph makes clear both the alternate history aspect of the novel (the Byzantine empire had fallen to the Ottoman Turks almost a century before the action of This Rough Magic takes place) and the nature of the fantasy it contains (non-human creatures, both good and evil, ranging from fauns and undines to demons and angels). This is a typical sort of scenario for what is becoming known as the "new weird" (a term I think is terrible), but where This Rough Magic scores is by concentrating on people who have some magical power but are not the most potent around, rather as though a superhero saga like Batman was centred on Robin rather than Batman himself. At the same time, Benito Valdosta is sufficiently heroic without the superpowers for readers to be able to identify with his character in an escapist mode, and more interesting than the bland superhero type of central character (as Hans Solo is more interesting than Luke Skywalker) or the hero who overcomes by extreme superpowers (as Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake is tending to become) - ingenuity is more involving to a reader than simple brute force.

The point at which I began to be involved in This Rough Magic was with the arrival of the main characters on Corfu. The background from the first third of the novel, which leads up to this, is quite important, and is particularly useful to those of us who did not read the first novel (the reader is given enough explanation that This Rough Magic can stand on its own), but it is not particularly interesting: judicious editing and dispersal of some of the material to form references to the past in the second two thirds of This Rough Magic would have improved the novel.

While not innovative, This Rough Magic integrates its various elements of medieval folklore and magic well, particularly in the different ways in which various genii loci work. It is an enjoyable read, and well worth picking up - though skimming the first third is probably a sensible idea.

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