The Warlock series, book 3
Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)
An entertaining bit of fluff. It starts weak and ends abruptly, but the central action is solid fantasy genre fiction. If you like that sort of thing, this is good airplane reading. If you would never read a book with a dragon on the cover (although this does not have one), skip it.
We return to Gramayre, a planet settled by the SCA, now populated by psychics known there as witches and warlocks. The planet could become the key to galactic democracy. Competing groups of time-travelers continue their shadowy fight for control, while the titular Warlock finds himself far away and perhaps becoming a warlock in fact.
This series has one of the handiest explanations for "fantasy via sci fi" around, combined with the least coherent central conflicts. Its backstory is perfect for creating the classic fantasy hodgepodge of a few centuries of Europe: C.S. Friedman has a less frolicsome version. The hidden antagonists, however, seem to be carrying the idiot ball despite all the advantages one could imagine from time travel, with the unstated explanation being that their interaction keeps any from being effective.
The setting is relentlessly European. On Gramayre, that makes sense because they were trying to do that, although I am surprised that no ninja or samurai made it through. The rest of the galaxy, despite having had 1000 years, is just modern Western society writ on a larger page. This is convenient for the author and the audience, but thinking of all the change we have had over the last century, it is odd that we would have less over the next millennium except for the scale and a few tech toys. I know, try not to think too hard about these things, but the effort put into a decent backstory for the planet makes me want a decent backstory for the galaxy.
The antagonists, at least, should be using some non-Western ideas after losing several times in a row. They seem to be set on repeating European history, which turned out badly for the factions they are supporting. The Warlock is consistently trouncing them with a basic history text.
I find it odd how often the Catholic Church appears in science fiction. Perhaps the notion of a two thousand year old institution provides a sense of stability, the sort of thing that might last another thousand years. It provides a thread of continuity from the present day, a recognizable institution that could plausibly be largely unchanged.
Father Al gets too much time at center stage. I understand the desire to structure the book with alternating chapters of the warlock's adventure and the priest's journey to meet him, but do not do it just for the sake of doing it. There is a four-page chapter that has about one sentence of content (not a huge thing, but jarringly wasteful enough for it to stick with me). With the amount of indirect characterization he gets, we do not need the explicit statements about how likable he is. Also, why is he lecturing a river nymph on the evils of free love? In-character moralizing, sure, did the author think the audience needed an extended speech on how the galaxy did not follow Heinlein?
For one last bit of whining, it is disappointing to make the Warlock a warlock. He has been doing so well with sociology, history, and a little bit of technology. I anticipate underuse of these abilities beyond that seen in Amber. It highlights the continued underuse of the Warlock's wife, one of the most powerful psychics in the galaxy and someone who is left home with the kids. Really excited about motherhood plus a sexist medieval society plus distrust of witches? She may have internalized being a second-class citizen, but I expect our protagonist to have a bit more respect (if nothing else, she could crush him like a bug).
And now for some positive thinking. The central action, as I said, is good. The Warlock is cast into a world that mixes the familiar and the unfamiliar, letting him use his abilities fully while providing a novel environment. He brings along his own adventuring band, and the kids are precocious and effective. It is a straightforward fantasy adventure in unfamiliar territory.
A merit of the series is having genre savvy characters who pause to ask, "How is all this possible?" It provides an in-character explanation for the setting. Those are always fun sections. "Elves? Seriously? Okay, where could elves have come from?" And then they rationalize. The rationalizations are often somewhat far-fetched, but if we take the elves as given, they are not bad explanations. I hope they take the same approach to explaining how Father Al has found demonic possessions but no real magic.
I feel odd summarizing the good that quickly after extending complaints, but that is what the good comes down to: fun fantasy adventure punctuated by interesting backstory rationalization. The hero is heroic and his telekinetic children throw big rocks at his enemies. A significant part of the early book is low-value introduction and meandering, but it does a good job of reminding the reader of things that might have been forgotten in the decade-long publishing gap, to say nothing of how long ago a present reader might have met the Warlock. Once it gets going, it goes well. It is like a boulder being pushed over a hill, with a strained upward journey and a swift, powerful descent. You can see its momentum crash against the page count wall as the frame story resolves all at once.
Part of me was hoping that the book would not turn it around. The first two books were not excellent, and the second was weak ever after a re-write. If it had not gone well, I would have abandoned the series and cleared some shelf space, to say nothing of the joys of scathing reviews. Instead, we have a book that reaches "okay" with its early sections, becomes fun once it builds up momentum, and carries that momentum through a climax that barely leaves room for denouement.
It is a fine little bit of fantasy. If the next book carries through the implications of the monks' research and the Warlock's emerging abilities, the series as a whole might exhibit the same pattern of a weak opening followed by rollicking fun with occasional pauses for pondering. We shall see.