Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#6: Randall Garrett and Lord Darcy

For someone whose writing career stretched from the fifties (forties, technically) to the eighties, Randall Garrett's output was surprisingly small. (Okay, so he also published stuff under half a dozen pseudonymns. I haven't read any of it, so it doesn't count.) His outstanding creation, and the one that makes him worth the reviewing, is the universe of Lord Darcy.

This universe differs from our own because of two key historical turning-points. The first, and the harder to believe, is that after Richard the Lion-Hearted survived the siege of Chaluz, he settled down to become a good king. As a result, in the twentieth century, the Plantagenets still rule a powerful Anglo-French empire. (One of the historical domino effects is that their chief rival to the east is the mighty *Polish* empire.) Oh yes, the other point of divergence is the one that led to the systematic development of magical instead of physical science.

Lord Darcy himself is the Chief Criminal Investigator of Normandy. (Any similarities between the detectives in these works and those in the worksof other authors is purely coincidental, of course...) At his side, we typically find Master Sean O Lochlainn, his forensic sorcerer. Garrett's stories are well-told detective stories, in which these two are called upon to solve serious crimes such as murder and necromancy. If you think the combination of fantasy (the sort where the magic is made as scientific as possible) and detective fiction would appeal to you, you should try these stories.

"Murder and Magic" (***+), a collection of four of the early Lord Darcy stories, is probably the best place to begin. The first story, "The Eyes Have It", is not atypical: A Count is found dead of a bullet wound, but forensic tests reveal that the Count has been the target of a black magic attack *inconsistent* with the apparent cause of death. Further, although the assailant must have come from within the castle, another forensic spell produces a picture of a suspect which nobody in the castle recognizes. Later Lord Darcy stories appear in the collection "Lord Darcy Investigates" (***). If you liked the earlier ones, you'll probably like these. They tend further from detective fiction and more towards the cloak and dagger, and I thought them the weaker for it.

There is also a complete novel set in this universe, "Too Many Magicians"(***+). It's a locked-room murder mystery. Now, common sense will tell you that if a murdered man is found alone in a locked room, there is probably a magician involved -- and the evidence in this case falls on the side of logic. The problem is, the murder has taken place at a magicians' convention, providing an embarrassment of suspects.

"The first -- and most important -- part is built into this device here." He pointed toward the golden-gleaming brass intrument. "The symbolism built into this...er...'gadget' I think you called it, Lord Bontriomphe -- is most important. Within this brass cylinder are the invariables -- what we call the 'hardware' of the spell. But this, by itself, is of no use. It can only be used by a sorcerer who can use the proper verbal spells to activate it. These spells we call the 'sofware' -- if you follow me, my lord."

Also noteworthy is "The Shrouded Planet" (***), by "Robert Randall". (Robert Randall is the name Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett used for their collaborations.) The Shrouded Planet is the cloud-covered planet of Nidor, home to a stable, low-tech culture -- and the only other intelligent beings discovered by Earth. For reasons of its own, Earth decides to set Nidor, willy nilly, on the road to science and technology. Playing the emissaries-from-above gambit, they open a school. Of theology. With a bit of science and engineering thrown in. The novel, and its sequel, "The Dawning Light" (***) follow several generations of one Nidorian family, as this intervention causes cracks to appear in the previously untroubled social fabric. (As is typical of fifties-sf, and the ethics of this intervention are never seriously questioned.)

"Takeoff!" (***+) is a collection of pastiches and parodies (the distinction is based on whether you're trying to capture a writer's style or to exaggerate it), and one which I recommend to those who have read and enjoyed their targets -- earlier luminaries such as E.R. Burroughs, I. Asimov, E.F. Russell, and E.E. Smith. The best known of these is his parody of Smith's Lensmen series, "Backstage Lensman" (probably because it's such an easy target). I was particularly impressed by "The Horror Out of Time", a well-honed Lovecraft pastiche, and "Despoilers of the Golden Empire", which (to say too much would be a spoiler) carries a telling message about the subgenre. The book ends with a collection of book reviews in rhyme, and a set of Feghoots (short sf shaggy dog stories ending in awful puns) under the title "Through Time and Space With Benedict Breadfruit." (I think this collection had a sequel, titled "Takeoff Too!")

It is a lenticular structure of hundreds of thousands of tiny crystalloids, and each is built and tuned to match the ego of one individual entity. It is not, strictly speaking, alive, but its pseudolife is such that when it is in circuit with the living entity to whom it is synchronized, it gives off a strong, changing, characteristically polychromatic light. It is a telepathic communicator of astounding power and range, and kills any being besides its owner who attempts to wear it.
Thus, it is both pretty and useful.
Manufactured and issued by the mysterious beings of dread and dreaded Arisia, it cannot be counterfeited, and is given only to those entities of the highest honor, integrity, honesty, and intelligence. That knowledge made the Starborad Admiral, as, indeed, it did all Lensmen, feel smug.

The last work with Garrett's name on it was the seven-book "Gandalara Cycle" (**), mostly written after his death by Vicki Ann Heydron (his wife) to his outline. It's competent fantasy/adventure fiction, but nothing special. If you've never read Garrett's work, I'd recommend reading "Murder and Magic" (if the subgenre appeals to you), and deciding whether to seek out the rest. And if you know and enjoy the older sf classics, you could do worse than seek out his humorous "Takeoff!" on those works. By which time you'll know whether or not you're a Garrett fan.

Dani Zweig