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Book Review: The Pilgrims

By (March 22, 2014) No Comment

The Pilgrimsthe pilgrims cover

by Will Elliott

Tor, 2014


Will Elliott’s utterly delightful new novel The Pilgrims stars 26-year-old slacker London journalist Eric Albright and his sometime-acquaintance Stuart Casey, a homeless drunk who spends a good deal of time living under a bridge. That bridge becomes hot property one night when a red door suddenly opens out of one of its walls and several strange beings emerge, do a little random ransacking, and then retreat back through their portal.

Eric and Stuart are naturally intrigued and begin staking out the bridge wall for a re-appearance of that magical door, but they’re already largely comfortable with what they’ll find if they go through it. After all, this is a familiar enough development in the fantasy novels, virtually built into the genre back at its first flourishing at the hands those old friends, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Both men knew that the heart of the fantasy genre is the clash of different worlds, the entrance of one world into another. In Tolkien, his rustic little hobbits stumble into a much larger and more complex world than they’d ever imagined existed – but it’s all still Middle-Earth. In Lewis, the difference is categorical: people from one world travel to another and back.

And that second kind of clash almost always prompts writers to load the dice. They almost always take the opportunity to transform their world-travelers somehow. In Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars romances, his hero awakens on the bizarre landscape of Barsoom and finds his Earth muscles are far more powerful in the weaker gravity of Mars. In Philip Jose Farmer’s “World of Tiers” series, frail septuagenarian Robert Wolff becomes a young man with thick hair and rippling muscles the instant he steps into the world of Okeanos. In Stephen Donaldson’s “Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” books, when the bitter antihero finds himself in the mystical world of The Land, he’s suddenly the only person who can control the wild magic running through his white gold wedding ring. It’s a fairly common twist that if you find yourself heaved into a fantasy realm, you’re in luck.

Our hapless hero Eric knows this perfectly well (The Pilgrims is a thoroughly knowing book from start to finish). When he and Stuart eventually make their way to the parallel world of Levaal, Eric isn’t very concerned:

‘Don’t worry. I’ll fix it … I know how these things work. Someone from my world comes into another, they end up a hero of great renown. Well, that’s me, apparently. Someone here’s going to teach me magic, you’re going to teach me how to use a sword, and I’ll be the greatest hero you people ever had. I know the script, man. Believe me. I’m Batman.’

Case is every bit as irreverent when he first encounters one of Levaal’s war mages, who chooses an odd way to impress our drunken co-hero (a drunken co-hero who completely steals the book from its ostensible main character):

“You some kind of wizard?’ [Case] called. He spread his arms, offering himself as a target. ‘Go on ahead, put on a show, let’s see what you got.’

The thing pointed a long claw-tipped finger at him, swayed, then hunched forwards, a strangled painful cry in its throat. Such a pitiful sound compared with its rasping deathly voice. Hot air rippled outwards from it, and the space around it shimmered, but then its staff fell sideways in the grass, and its stiff gown of skin was swarmed in worming flames. It fell to its knees, slumped sideways and lay still, burning like a campfire.

‘Some wizard,’ Case said, laughing. ‘I could’ve done that with a box of matches. What’s your next trick? Encore!’

Levaal is a niftily-conceived fantasy world, one which has itself been extensively altered by its long history with the ‘pilgrim’ travellers from our normal, everyday Earth:

Though it goes by another name there, the game of chess came into Levaal with one early group of human Pilgrims from Otherworld. They brought other things with them too – the way days and hours are measured, systems of numbers, measurement and more, all gladly adopted (for some reason) by the cities and temples. They brought seeds of plant and vegetable, which have grown here and thrived. Also species of bird and beast, including the very useful horses and dogs. Weapons too: bows and arrows, plate and chain mail, kinds of blades until they unknown here. And chess, chequers and backgammon, as well as other fine games.

And of course there’s a bad guy, the eminently hissable megalomaniacal Lord Vous, who’s seeking to make himself a god. Our heroes are certainly needed, and The Pilgrims is billed as the first book in something called “The Pendulum Trilogy,” which would mean we’ll be seeing a lot more of them, and of the broad and entertaining cast of characters with which Elliott populates Levaal. This reader, at least, is very cheered by the prospect.