Book Review: Sword of the Bright Lady
by M. C. Planck
M. C. Planck’s new novel is a radical departure from his very good debut, The Kassa Gambit. That book was a taut, stand-alone science fiction adventure, whereas Sword of the Bright Lady is the first volume in a big-canvas fantasy epic that looks to have every intention of being, if not flaccid (the opposite of taut), at least fairly sprawling. Planck’s energetic prose is every bit as effective in both registers, and the self-evidently greater ambition of the new book is carried off easily – this will be a series to savor.
Its opening premise is one of the oldest in the genre: an ordinary person from our ordinary world suddenly finds himself transplanted to a strange and entirely different reality. Whether it’s an example as venerable as the Pevensie children in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia books or as popular as the leper anti-hero in Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series (or any of the hapless human heroes in Philip Jose Farmer’s “World of Tiers” books) or even as recent as Will Elliott’s The Pilgrims from earlier this year, it’s a premise that has a few irresistible hooks. It makes your protagonists instantly sympathetic, for instance: they’re as alienated as alienation gets, cut off from everything they knew. This is certainly the case with Planck’s memorable new hero, Christopher Sinclair, an engineer (with a handy hobby for martial arts combat and weaponry) who’s out walking in the heat of the Arizona chaparral when suddenly he finds himself in a cold and vaguely Nordic new world. He initially wonders if he’s been kidnapped and doesn’t remember it, and in a neatly-realized scene, Planck has the stars themselves deliver the shocking awakening:
His pretense collapsed under the weight of twinkling stars. No one could kidnap the constellations; no plane could fly him to any part of the globe that would look like this. He remembered the confusion now; one moment desert heat and the next winter’s cold. He had called for his dogs, but the jingle of their collars was gone. He had looked back for the way he had come, only to find his tracks began abruptly in the snow as if he had stepped through an invisible doorway. A doorway that was already closed when he’d rushed back, leaving him freezing and alone in a silent forest. With nothing for company but the trees and the impossible, innumerable stars.
Another advantage of this fish-out-of-water premise is that it lends itself to exposition. The unworlded protagonist needs every last little thing explained, after all, and since the readers do too, the alignment is as easy as soup. The world where Sinclair awakens is a rough-hewn and somewhat barbaric place (echoes of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series are unavoidable but valiantly resisted), and his own quirky sense of honor quickly brings him into conflict with a crude bully named Hobilar – and in this land of warring gods and marching armies, ‘conflict’ is medievally blunt:
“The rules are simple,” Karl explained. “The field of honor is the village square. You go to the center, with Hobilar. Faren checks you both for magic, then asks if you still insist on fighting. If you say yes, then Faren says begin, and you try to kill each other. You stop when somebody dies, goes off the field, or yields.”
Perhaps the best advantage of the ‘I awoke and found myself here’ premise is the way it forces the hero to grow as a character by severing him from everything he once took for granted, and the jerky, believable transformation of Christopher Sinclair from the man he was while out walking in Arizona to the man he needs to be in order to survive in his new world is the most interesting plot-thread running through Sword of the Bright Lady. As he asks himself at one point, “Was he prepared to climb back to Earth over a stack of bodies?”
Thanks to Planck’s skills, readers will very much want to know the answer to that question. Here’s hoping they get it over the course of many books in this series.