FORGING THE DARKSWORDA novel by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman
(1988, Bantam Spectra)
The Darksword Trilogy, book 1
In a world of magic, a young man born without it enters the forbidden cult of technology and creates magic-absorbing sword.
-- Second reading (paperback)
A very interesting world, but I found that it had a weak plot. The characters, however, were very nicely developed.Spoiler review:
The problem with the first book of a fantasy trilogy in a world that nobody has ever seen before is that it has to define that world. It has to lay the groundwork for the entire plot, set up the characters, and it has to tell the readers how the magic works, what the rules are.
And I found that the authors had a little bit of trouble describing their world in a smooth fashion. Every time a new event is introduced, the authors go aside to explain it to us. Sometimes they are successful, more often not. The successful times are normally when they explain things through their main characters. We don't get into Joram's head, but we grow to learn a lot about Saryon. And Saryon is firmly embedded in the traditional world. So whenever he sees things that are out of the ordinary, he goes into shock, and explains why, as well as how things are traditionally done.
But the struggle for world definition calms down when the real plot is introduced, halfway through the book. And from there, it gets really exciting and interesting. Unfortunately, by the time the end of the book comes around, I found my interest waning again.
I never realized, the first time I read these books, how it was modeled as an extension of our own world! The authors take our world as legend tells us it existed back in the middle-ages, and draw a parallel existence for some of its descendents. We go back to the times when people "had" magic, and were burned at the stake for that magic. Witches and warlocks were found among neighbors at one time, and then, suddenly, there were no more. Could it be that the persecution simply ended? The authors say no. The magic users went to a new world, one that exuded magic, and they didn't allow non-magic users to follow them. So now they are presumably near the end of the twentieth century (in fact, from what I remember about the end of the last book, it must be about that time), but in a parallel world.
And judging from the name of the capital city of Merilon, it was the powerful wizard Merlin who transported the people to Thimhallan.
Most of the workings of Thimhallan are found through long expository paragraphs behind the scenes. These are not written as well as they could be. The authors did a great job of describing a new world in the Dragonlance Chronicles, and later did a fantastic job of it with the Death Gate Cycle, so I don't know why they seemed to have such trouble here. But perhaps it's just me...
Right away, we meet Saryon, and his problematic apprenticeship as a catalyst under the bishop. Catalysts don't have much magic, but they are the only ones who can take magic from nature and transfer it to other mages. The mages use this magic for everything from moving about the Corridors through space to shaping houses to creating light from living things or magical. They would never use so much as a lever to move a rock. Bare hands or magic, but not the outlawed sorcery of Technology! And because Saryon is the greatest mathematician of his age, he is drawn to technology even against his will.
Saryon is caught, but instead of punishing him, he is simply found a job far from the bishop and especially the library where the forbidden books are to be found. It is only seventeen years later, when bishop Vanya has laid plans in motion for other purposes, that he decides to punish Saryon by sending him after a Dead man who murdered another, and vanished into the Outland to join with the Technologists.
For the living Dead also exist in Thimhallan. Not as corpses, as in the Death Gate Cycle, but as people without the Life of magic. It was not clear until Saryon reflects back on it near the end of the book, but to be declared Dead, babies must fail two out of three magical tests. Only one baby ever failed all three: the Prince of Merilon.
I was never quite clear why Saryon described all his hopes as being in this little baby. As far as I could see, he never made any plans around the child, nor was he assigned to the royal house. I can see how he could become enamored of the little child, but I don't understand why all his hopes were dashed when they had to let the child die because it possessed no magic.
But somehow (I remember this from when I read the book ten years ago, but I won't spoil it here), the Prince ended up not dying, but in the hands of Anja, a sorceress who actually had the nerve to have a physical, sexual relationship with a man, like a beast, instead of the civilized way of magically taking the sperm to fertilize a woman's egg! The man was turned to stone, but the woman escaped. Saryon refuses to accept this at first, because he knows that the Prince was left to die, but by the end, he acknowledges why he has such a bond with the young man.
Joram doesn't know his heritage. This is because his mother was insane. She walked all the way to a farming village, and worked there, as did her son when he was old enough. Since she was of a noble family, she taught him in the same ways, believing, in her insane way, that they would return to Merilon one day. So he learned to read, and he learned history, among other things. But the most important thing she teaches him is sleight of hand, so that he can fool people into thinking he still has some magic, if only a little. But when the village gets a new overseer, and the harvesters are told to float off the ground to speed things up one day, Joram, of course, can't even pretend to do this. When the overseer gets violent, Joram kills him and flees. He has enough of the other harvesters on his side that he is successful in his escape. He makes his way to the Technologists, and later, the only person who could possibly call him even close to a friend joins him there.
And a year later, Saryon is sent into the same village, because bishop Vanya has finally located his missing Prince. We know before Saryon does that the bishop is lying to him. And I wonder how badly the bishop's plan will backfire because of this. Saryon didn't need to know the details behind this mission -democracy doesn't exist in this world; it has been the same feudal system since Merlin's time -but still, he feels betrayed.
The Technologists are not without magic, but they also use tools to enhance their skills. And when their leader, the evil Blachloch, finds a catalyst in their midst, he plans to use Saryon to full advantage. The man was an enforcer warlock, a policeman of sorts feared throughout the world, and is one who has a vast power available to him. Blachloch is a renegade, but from the way bishop Vanya talks with his spy near the end of the book, I believe he is the spy! Even though he does such atrocious things, such as using Saryon's conduits of Life to kill people and burn villages and steal supplies and food, I think he is acting simply to further the appearance of his renegade status. I'm sure the enforcers lose their conscience at an early age, even if they are not renegade!
But because Saryon sees the terrible things the warlock does, he refuses to give Life (magic) to Blachloch during the raid, and that starts him towards his downfall. The bond between Saryon, Joram and Mosiah grows stronger every day, even though they seem to loathe each other. Still, somehow, they are drawn to each other. So Joram uses this to his advantage.
He has read the forbidden books of technology, and found the magic-absorbing darkstone. But he needs somebody who understands math to complete the object of his desires. And it turns out that he needs specially a catalyst to help forge the Darksword, because it draws life out of the world. Saryon is aghast at the very idea of giving life to this inanimate object, especially an object of war. But his hatred and fear of Blachloch is even greater, so he submits and helps create the sword. He then helps lure Blachloch to a waiting Joram, and helps the young man kill the warlock, presumably freeing the people of the village from his terror.
As I understand it, it was Vanya's plan to lure the Technologists into war (under the guidance of Blachloch) with the rest of the world, at the same time as another aggressive realm, so that they would be defeated and ruined. How the death of Blachloch will affect this is yet to be seen...
The Dark Arts of Technology are so close to the beliefs of the Yuuzhan Vong in the Star Wars New Jedi Order that I wonder if this series was an inspiration to the creators of that series. This is especially illustrated by both Joram and Anakin (in Conquest) getting punished for using (or mentioning using) a lever. Even the terminology, "giving life to that which is dead" is very similar.
I think that Saryon was probably a very realistic character. Who knows how I would fare, being an academic, in the kind of situations that he was placed in. Probably worse than he did! But sometimes I wanted to shut up his whining. He often went too far into the very reluctant hero part for me. Weis/Hickman books always have a reluctant hero, from most of the cast of the Dragonlance books to Alfred in the Death Gate Cycle (who is probably the best of them all). Saryon was a little too reluctant for my tastes.
Joram, though he was characterized consistently throughout the book, seemed way too dark for me. His bitterness was accurate for the lack of magic and the way his mother treated him, but somehow it didn't seem to be written properly. I cannot put my hand on what was wrong, however.
Simkin also has a problem. Typical in every Weis/Hickman saga is also a comic character, and one whom I am always eager to meet, because he is always very very funny. Just read any lines from Tasslehoff or Fizban in the Dragonlance books. Also hilarious is Zifnab from the Death Gate Cycle, or Raoul from the Knights of the Black Earth! Simkin is no exception, but he takes a long time to get started. No matter what is happening, he is always ready to run away at the mouth, go off on a tangent, or to change his clothing (magically) into something suitable, normally garish. He talks incessantly about the people he knows at court in Merilon and other cities, and I am certain that every single thing he says is a lie! Never tell him a secret, because he will tell the person that you are trying to hide something from, like when Joram is forging the Darksword. The strange thing is that he somehow knows when to tell and when to "forget", and the manner in which he says it is rather disarming, even when the reader is ready to slap him for it! In other words, when he is revealing all the carefully-laid plans, he is actually not saying much to the listener! Brilliant, actually, once his character gets started.
I do wonder if it was simply me who had trouble getting into the character. But I found that the humor was not timed properly, or perhaps the authors didn't tone him down enough at the beginning, so that we could ease into him. In any case, I found that something was "off" in the way he was written, until the last third of the book. One specific example was Fairy Queen, a section of the mid-book that I didn't enjoy at all (with a couple of small exceptions coming from Simkin's mouth). But once I got into the character, I found him to be hilarious.
Simkin is also special. I am not just speaking about his ability to change into inanimate objects (tongs or a rotting tree some to mind), but the fact that he doesn't obey the laws of Thimhallan. He is oblivious to danger most of the time. He can do extraordinary feats without requiring a catalyst. I don't remember what makes him so special, but he keeps the book much more interesting because of it.
Because the book lacks a real plot. In this series, the prophecy of the end of the world is the main plot. But the authors spend so much time forging the world, that forging the Darksword only takes a few pages. The obvious point of the book is to get Saryon and Joram together, and to free the Technologists of Blachloch's control. That is dealt with fine, but it only kicks into gear halfway through.
After Saryon arrives in the Technologists' village, things get more interesting. Wondering how Saryon would react to the raid, and how he would fare with Joram's plots were actually quite interesting. However, the three-man "duel" with Blachloch almost felt like an afterthought. I found it wasn't really given enough weight.
Essentially the path the book took was not clear at all. I like scheming and plotting, and politics that muddy the path quite a bit. But this was a confusion, where I didn't know where we were going, and I didn't enjoy some of the scenery as we went along. However, the world, though poorly explained, is a very interesting one and I love the idea of it. I also like the way Saryon wonders why people could live such wretches lives, when the catalysts could easily give them enough Life to enjoy themselves. But that would lead to rebellion, and nobody to harvest the food for the rich, and in a feudal society, that's bad. But rebellion is brewing anyway, and it looks like Thimhallan is in danger of the prophecy coming true. The best part is, I don't remember much of what comes next!
-- First reading (paperback)
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