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The Staff



Mage Sh*t

By John Clute

D usk begins in the deep afternoon of Story. Three hundred years have passed in the Land of Noreela since the Cataclysmic War, each year thinner than the last, as Magic has been banned ever since the evil Mages, who had distorted it to their own "mad" uses, were driven into far away beyond a grim Aleutian necklace of islands in the deep North. Before the Cataclysmic War great machines—half-mechanical, half-organic—had serviced the various races of the Land, whores and harvests thrived, jollity and reverence ruled. Readers of Dusk—which is the first volume of a new Dark Fantasy featuring swords hungry for blood like Elric's—are I think expected to anticipate in some future volume the revelation that Magic and Land are, at some really profound level, the same thing, the same utterance of a very deep wisdom. We are I think expected to assume that, three centuries before Dusk begins, the mad bad Mages had spoiled all that, by engaging in a lot of Distorting Good for Evil Dark Side of the Force Stuff; and that it will be a long hard slog through Fantasyland for Dusk's name-badged clatch of protagonists before they are able to get their ducks—sorry, I mean their Samurai Powers—in a row, and engender a Dawn of Tao.

If all this gives off the drear depressiveness of some computer game from yesteryear, it should. But maybe there's hope. Maybe Dusk will turn out not to have been set in the rigid template of some Fantasyland nearly indistinguishable from any other, because (at least in the case of my "Advance Reading Copy—Not For Sale") Tim Lebbon's long new novel has not been cursed with a frontispiece map, which means there may be some chance of change here. (We should remember that Tolkien's map of Middle-earth—the first Land Map to be widely influential on other writers—was intended to catch his territory on the wing, that before the time of The Lord of the Rings eveything was different; and that afterwards the Land is Us.) Lebbon's Noreela, therefore, unlike the Land in any orthodox Fantasyland epic, may be subject to change; it may turn out to be a genuine fantasy (genuine fantasy being all about deep change). Halfway through its many pages, one of Dusk's quarrelsome Seven-Samurai protagonists makes it clear, describing a "Book of Ways," that there may be some hope that the book may amount to something more than an adjustment of stage machinery in the arena of Fantasyland:

"It was written," says our protagonist of this Book, "by ... one of the great mapmakers, long before the Cataclysmic War. It charts the land of Noreela from north to south, east to west, ... Back then, there was more certainty in things: a path did not change from one year to the next; mountains remained in place; swamps did not dry out and deserts did not become lakes."

Which is mild enough. But there is some hope in the implication that the loss of the old balance may have consequences more serious than a lost harvest or two. The loss of "magic's confluence with the land" could, in other words, be more than a stage effect. Ah well.

Meat for the market

The story so far. Ex-thief Kosar watches as a Red Monk—enraged to madness by his hatred of magic, a hatred which had inspired the winning side in the War—destroys an entire village searching for young Rafe Baburn, who was born without a navel, and who may somehow be a bearer of, or a tympanum for, Magic Reborn. Kosar and Rafe escape to the nearby den-of-vice town of Pavisse. Here Kosar encounters his old lover A'Meer, anima-like warrior (retired) of the Shantasi, who has a mysterious relationship to magic; and Rafe is picked up by Hope, a slightly elderly witch and ex-whore, whose facial tattoos (interestingly) augment and disguise her emotions. Meanwhile, deep in the earth, Trey, a fledge miner, escapes his deep home when the Nax come up from even further below on a killing rampage because (we guess) magic is being reborn, and meets Alisia, a virgin librarian from Noreela City who has fled her library after a Red Monk razes it to the ground. These will be our Seven Samurai (all right, Six—though there are occasional hints of a seventh).

Meanwhile, way up North, Lenora, who remembers the War because her Mage mistress Angel gave her indefinite life back then, leads her Krote on great hawks (read Valkyrie) southwards to begin the long war again. Meanwhile back at the Monastery, Jossua, the head of the Red Monks, who also remembers the War, is warned by a plenipotentiary (but unspeakable) Nax to activate his brood to chase down young Rafe, in order to keep magic out of the Land.

Most of Dusk is spent getting the Samurai onto one page together so they can begin to take Rafe where he has to go, while giving Lenora and Jossua some time stage-front so they can properly represent the two sides—pro and anti magic—whose centuries-long conflict is about to recommence, in volume two and three and four and five or so. If there seems absolutely nothing new in this synopsis—over and above a few hints that the Land of Dusk might actually be at the cusp of some deep transformation—then the right impression has been given. Dusk is a slot fitter.

Not all fantasy trilogies are written by Americans for the American market; some, like this one, are written by non-Americans for the American market. It is a market whose owners, terrified that the ignoring of certain shibboleths will cause the fundamentalist Christian right to jaculate, clearly ask that its authors follow fairly strict lines of decorum. But Tim Lebbon has been identified as a horror writer, and Dusk partially escapes some of the weirder distortions imposed on most fantasy trilogy writers when it comes to matters of sex, which tends to be a lot more Windham Hill than Elvis.

Unseen sex, missing values

This is all similar to the distortions imposed on any filmmaker who needs a PG-13 certificate to cover his costs. Peter Jackson's otherwise magnificent remake of King Kong (2005) is almost destroyed because it obeys PG-13 shibboleths about sexual explicitness. In the 1933 version, the beauty and the beast have sex together (sex does not have to be genital to be properly arousing); in the 2005 version, what they have together is family values. At the same time, mere seconds of film time away, strictly responsive to the Christian right's relative indifference to such issues, the pre-teens of this country are exposed to scenes of quite extraordinarily horrific violence; it is a pure example of the denial-high of modern PG-13 America: a vision of the vagina dentata (as in this film) will be perfectly acceptable, as long as it's really only a thousand-toothed giant worm with a mouth inside its mouth which eats human beings alive from the head down while they scream and writhe because the acid and the suffocation and the utter horror of their coming death have begun to bite. But hey, no nipples.

Dusk, as I said, is exempted by its author's horror credentials from the worst of this—quite a few erect male tools make their tragicomic bows, though they rarely enter anything; and some flaccid ones too are felt to pee. But whenever sex acts are in anything like the offing, the book gives off the deep anhedonic frigidity of Mall America in the deep afternoon before you've had a chance to get drunk. Dusk only heats up when atrocities are being inflicted upon human beings (or other creatures) by obscene weapons. Grin and bear it, maybe; it's the game that's being played. What I cannot stand, however, are the stylistic gaucheries Lebbon imports from the Affect Horror genre he has contributed to in the past. My sense is that the words "rage" and "revenge" and "power" and "mad" or "madness" must appear hundreds of times in the text, though I think that the phrase "mountains of madness" appears only once (but correct me). Lebbon has, in other words, the terrible Affect Horror writer's fear of the unadorned. No sight of the Thing Itself is ever allowed to make its effect on the reader unadjectived in the pages of this very long book. And almost every adjective—that is, anything extraneous to a depiction of the naked thing itself—gives off a sense of prurient, moralistic voyeurism absolutely typical of the Affect Horror writer's felt need to point the finger. Nothing can be unspoken if it can be unspeakable. Nothing—as when his grieving uncle touches his hand to Rafe's brow, his hand "shaking slightly as the big man shed his own shameless tears"—can be unshamed if it can be shameless. This is fustian.

So Dusk in the end is product spiced with attitude. It is a waste of Tim Lebbon, some of whose other work is almost totally devoid of rote, whom I suspect has found himself trapped in Product Land with the suits. Not that he was unable to think up some good bits, to slip in an occasional turn of phrase, to convey a sense that maybe something—some unshouted heartwood—may survive the rhodomontade. Dusk is not unspeakable, though much of it could have gone unspoken. All the same, it would be good to see Mr. Lebbon finish this task.

John Clute is a writer, editor, critic and scholar of science fiction. His first novel in 25 years, Appleseed, was a New York Times Notable Book for 2002. He is the author of Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia and co-editor of both The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, all Hugo Award winners. His criticism and reviews have appeared in The New York Times. The Washington Post, Omni, F&SF and elsewhere. Much of this material has been collected in Strokes: Reviews and Essays 1966-1986, Look at the Evidence: Reviews and Essays, and Scores: Reviews 1993-2003, which includes almost all of the first 75 "Excessive Candour" columns, and other pieces. Forthcoming is An Historical Dictionary of Horror Literature"; he is also working on a third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, due to go online in late 2007.


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