Jun. 19th, 2016

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Reading Jack Williamson's Reign of Wizardry (it's one of the Retro Hugo finalists) is like stepping back into my childhood, the days when many science fiction and fantasy novels were brisk swashbuckling adventure stories based, sometimes quite openly, other times more subtly, on legends and folktales, and ancient history.

Reign of Wizardry is set in the time of the Minoan Empire, and calls on the myth of Theseus, the Athenian who killed the Minotaur and broke the hold of Minoan Crete over the Mediterranean world. In Williamson's fantasy, the power that sustains King Minos is wizardry, and Theseus must set human courage and ingenuity against supernatural forces - aided by the love of Ariadne, daughter of Minos and priestess of Cybele.

This is a very Golden Age fantasy, for all that it stays rather close to the bones of the Greek legend. The hero is from the same mould as Conan - bold, strong, smart, a warrior with a touch of barbarian nobility fighting against the decadent, cruel, and immeasurably wealthy forces of corrupt magic. The woman is a cypher who exists only to fall madly in love at the hero's passionate kiss and betray everyone she's ever known, everything she's ever believed in, to help him defeat the only world she knows. It's a fast, tightly plotted read that moves from set piece to set piece with efficiency and provides all the entertainment the reader expects.

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Elizabeth Peters' early standalone novel, the Camelot Caper, attracted me with its promise of an Arthurian theme. While there was just enough of Arthur to satisfy me, I was quite delighted to discover that this novel was very reminiscent in tone, plot and characterisation of one of my favourite childhood authors, Mary Stewart.

This novel, like many of Stewart's, is a sort of romantic suspense adventure built around a female protagonist who is neither weak nor stupid, although occasionally young and a touch naive. I'm not sure if anyone writes these any more - an everywoman who confronts some kind of unexpected danger, and who finds along the way a romance with a man who is not so much a saviour as a partner, who shares the mystery and the danger, but needs as much help as he gives. Wikipedia describes Stewart as "... a British novelist who developed the romantic mystery genre, featuring smart, adventurous heroines who could hold their own in dangerous situations." And that's very much the genre that The Camelot Caper falls into.

The protagonist is a young American woman, Jessica Tregarth, visiting Britain for the first time at the behest of a dying grandfather. Her own father, who died when she was young, had been long estranged from his family, but had kept a family heirloom, a not very valuable man's ring, which Jessica's grandfather had asked her to bring with her.

The mystery begins when Jessica realises that someone else wants to get the ring before she can take it to her grandfather, and seems prepared to go to some lengths to get it. Fleeing from the two men pursuing her, she meets David, a writer of romantic mysteries, who at first thinks her story is part of a practical joke cooked up by his friends, but who is soon drawn into the mystery and offers his help in getting her safely to her grandfather in Cornwall.

The Arthurian connection comes in through the belief of the grandfather that their family is descended from a bastard son of Arthur's. His conviction that there are remnants of an Arthurian fortress, perhaps Camelot itself, on the family land has nearly bankrupted the family with repeated archeological excavations.

Along the twisty path to Cornwall, Peters also treats us to visits to a number of historical churches, and of course a stop at Glastonbury, as Jessica and David chase, and are chased in turn - and captured on several occasions - by the two mysterious men.

There are no red herrings here - the resolution of the mystery is directly connected to the ring, the excavations, the bankruptcy and the ancient legend, in a satisfying way. The romance is handled lightly, growing slowly as Jessica and David manage to figure out the connections, escape their captors, and set things right.

In The Camelot Caper, Peters has written a fine example of a possibly dated but nonetheless enjoyable genre.

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I read "Darker Than You Think," by Jack Williamson, for the Retro Hugos, thinking to myself all the while that it really did seem too long to be a novelette, and then, lo and behold, it was disqualified because it is in fact a novella, but didn't get enough votes to be a novella finalist.

Novelette or novella, finalist or not, I was quite caught up by the story - part urban fantasy, part secret history - which sought to bring together all the myths of witches, vampires and shapeshifters into a vast and ancient conflict between two branches of humanity, one possessed of the ability to manipulate probability and matter, and the other, our more familiar sort of human. Defeated by normal humans eons ago, the shapeshifter potentials have nonetheless been carried in humanity's gene pool, and after centuries of judicious breeding, a new breed of shapeshifters is ready to rise.

The protagonist is journalist Will Barbee, once a promising archeological student who was dropped from an important project by his mentor Doctor Lamarck Mondrick and, despite remaining friends with his mentor, the other members of the team and their families, carries a certain amount of bitterness.

The story opens at an airport, where Barbee waits to cover the arrival of his mentor and the others of the team, who are returning from a long and hazardous expedition to Mongolia. Waiting with him is April Bell, a beautiful and strangely attractive reporter from a rival newspaper. After the sudden death of Mondrian during a press conference in which he speaks vaguely about a threat to true humans from a secret, ancient foe, and the coming of a Child of Night who will bring about the resurgence of this hidden enemy, Barbee feels compelled to find follow the story.

His quest uncovers things that he finds hard to believe, despite the witness of his own eyes, as he is drawn further into the mysterious world that Mondrian died trying to warn the world about. It is in some ways a fascinating study of the ability of human beings to explain away that which they do not want to believe - and to deny even to themselves the truth of what they truly want. And at the same time, Barbee's slow transformation, facilitated by the femme fatale personified in April Bell, is a compelling description of the subtle, step-by-step temptation and corruption of the soul.

I'm not sure whether the version I read was the original novella from 1940, or the later novelisation from 1948. The concept of a dark taint hidden in the human bloodline is something one associates with the casual racism of early pulp fiction by authors such as Lovecraft and Howard, while the idea of the enemy that could be hidden anywhere is a potent Cold War image. "Darker Than You Think" may well be drawing on both in its suggestion of hidden dangers close at hand, people near and known to us yet darker than we think.


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