Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Review: "Collegium Sorcerorum: Thaddeus of Beewicke" by Louis Sauvain

Another prize from the LibraryThing giveaways program, this one even came with a courteous letter from the author himself. I'm always one to be impressed by presentation, and the presentation of this book was fine indeed: I was especially impressed by the dozen or so illustrations by Sean Bodley scattered throughout the text. The back matter was also quite impressive: 40 pages of Dramatis Personae (not as excessive as it first appears if these characters continue to play a part in this 9-book planned series) and another 10 pages of glossary that, while not necessary to understand most of the book, will prove helpful if you need to brush up on your Latin.

The full title at the least should prepare you for the Latin and the epic scale. Although my favorite bit is Beewicke. It's just adorable. Don't tell Thaddeus, though--he hails from the village of Beewicke, appropriately renowed for its honey, and he is highly sick of hearing about it (a running gag that just managed to not annoy the reader as much as it does Thad).

Collegium Sorcerorum: Thaddeus of Beewicke

For all its epic promise, though, this first story of the saga is smaller in scale. Its focus lies mainly on young Thaddeus, a boy who shows promise in magic; his new teacher Master Silvestrus, and his fellow apprentices Anders (a likeable bookworm) and Rolland (a redheaded thief who has quite a bit of character development to undergo, and, with the help of his travelling companions and a few amusing hijinks, does). Plus the talking mule, Asullus. The mere fact of a talking animal doesn't bother me much, and Asullus actually has plenty of sound advice for the new wizards, but his Scottish (mulish?) accent is transcribed, and that becomes painful after hundreds of pages (and he does talk for pages upon pages of this 500-page book). The Redwall series did the same thing, but being children's books they were more concise.

There's also a steady stream of other characters--again, see the 40 page Dramatis Personae. At once I liked the young courtesan Ethne, whose affectionate but not passionate relationship with her patron was sympathetically drawn and who is revealed to have both a kind heart and a good head on her shoulders. I didn't quite understand her attraction to the much younger Thaddeus, who does little but gape at her from the moment they're introduced (to be fair, he's recovering after a bandit attack). Bella the dog was almost sinister in her ability to enchant everyone around--trust me, this works quite well in context. The characters who were least fleshed out, honestly, were the 3 female apprentices and their teacher, who the travelling students and Silvestrus encounter in the second half of the novel. Three boys, three girls--they're inevitably paired off, but though the dynamics of the groups as a whole play out well, the individual young ladies were never very fleshed out. This is especially a problem as Thad seems to have chosen one for his life partner, and she gives Thaddeus a gift that surprises everyone and suggests she has intelligence and powers beyond the norm--but it's never really explained. Perhaps in book two.

For all I was occasionally surprised or baffled, not much of this story felt like a surprise. The plot exchanges a firm handshake with genre conventions and takes them along on the journey. A prophecy is in play, although this topic is lightly lampshaded (playing with a trope by admitting it's there, and yes, it is a trope, but let's make use of it anyway--the term is from TV Tropes, which I will not link you to because you will never emerge and I'll feel bad). Our thief is even a redhead. While tension arises from temporary problems--like the attack from Rolland's fellow thieves--these problems are quickly cleared away within a chapter. Like many journey stories, it moves linearly: start at Beewicke, end at the Collegium Sorcerorum. On the way Thaddeus has met many people and learned many things, and the fact that the things he's learned haven't proven relevant in this story suggests they'll be crucial in the sequels. But I'm just taking that on faith. Payoff does come in the fast-moving final chapters, which among other things explain Ethne's motive for getting so close to Thad (I would read a novel completely about her, just saying) as well as fleshing out most of the other female characters (except the three students) in one fell swoop. Proper epic scale is very nearly reached. But honestly, I wonder if this isn't a series better begun on Book 2, with the relatively staid Thaddeus of Beewicke serving as a sort of prologue.

Compared to other epic fantasy novelists like Tad Williams or Patrick Rothfuss, Sauvain's great girth of spine derives less from busyness (Williams has stuffed so many side quests into a book that I've actually become furious with him) and more longwindedness. I dare say's and As I was saying's and With not a moment to spare's abound. And sometimes characters are downright redundant:

"...that does not mean I have a liking for yanking and overgrown boy half a mille passe because I'm enjoying the experience!"

My high school English teacher used to give her students an M&M for every word they cut form their essays. The habit has gotten deep in me; I was wondering if have a liking for or because I'm enjoying the experience would earn me more candy-coated chocolately treats.

Some of the garrulousness is clearly meant to make the dialogue more realistically historically flavored. Speaking of history, although there is plenty of Latin (which adds an appropriate level of authority and epicness to the proceedings, without hampering the understanding of any reader either already versed in the language or willing to look back in the glossary), this clearly takes place in a secondary world rather than the actual European Dark Ages.

There is one last topic I'd like to address: sorcery being connected to sexual intimacy. I was a little nervous when I read this on the back cover copy, because it sounds like a trashy porn setup (as opposed to an intellecutal and tasteful porn setup--ahem, ahem) and/or give me flashbacks to the reverse system in Andre Norton's Witch World, where you could conveniently disempower an enemy sorceress by assaulting her. I have...issues with Norton's worldbuilding choices. However, the Collegium Sorcerorum system is far more thoughtful, including offering a loophole system for female wizards to make use of (if, among other things, they'd like to put off pregnancy). A little tough, still, for ugly or asexual male wizards. Not tough at all for Thaddeus, though. Given his womanizing-as-a-teenager tendencies I appreciated the nuanced writing of most female characters. They may fall into tropes, but no more and no worse than the male ones, and the sexism of several male characters is called out in ways more playful than anvilicious. Thaddeus never White Knights or takes credit for simply seeing women as people, and the men who do hold less-than-ideal attitudes are not mustache twirling professional misogynists, just everyday people with a blind spot. A blind spot that may get their egos smacked upside the head, to badly mix my metaphors.

Also, I caught the Hound of the Baskervilles reference on page 303 to Lord Basker who keeps hounds and lives on the moors. Although that's another strong argument against this one taking place in the actual dark ages.


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