Books to Look For
Fantasy & Science Fiction November 1988
By Orson Scott Card
Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman, The Darksword Trilogy: Forging the Darksword
(Bantam Spectra, paper, 391 pp, $3.95); Doom of the Darksword (Bantam Spectra,
paper, 385 pp, $3.95).
In case the names haven't stuck in your mind, Weis and Hickman are the
authors of the Dragonlance series, books that have been marketed as the BIC
shavers of medieval fantasy. Without ever reading a word of Dragonlance, I was
sure I knew all about it -- books designed like Dungeons and Dragons modules,
characters that could have been "rolled up with ten-sided dice, prose as lovely as
a software user's manual.
Then I met Tracy Hickman at a convention at BYU in Provo, Utah. To
my astonishment, in panel after panel he said all the right things about what he
believed good fantasy storytelling required, and I resolved to overcome my bias
and give his writing a chance. He kindly gave me a copy of Forging the
Darksword; soon after, his publisher sent me bound galleys of Doom of the
Darksword. I have read them both, and I hereby eat crow.
Not a lot of crow, mind you. The Dungeons and Dragons elements are still
there (Hickman has designed games for TSR), as the authors occasionally launch
into a completely irrelevant discourse on the different kinds of magic or races of
magicians -- we get enough of the rules of this fantasy world that we lack only a
list of hit points and strength points to start up the game. But overlooking such
excesses, these are worthy additions to the medieval-fantasy tradition.
The world was founded by refugees from our Earth's persecution of
witches. So pervasive is magic in this place that everyone flies -- except for
catalysts, who cannot fully use magic. Instead, the catalysts -- descendants of
whose we have called "familiars" -- focus magical power and provide it to others.
Even humbler than the catalysts, though, are the Dead -- people born alive, but
without magic. Usually children born utterly Dead are allowed to starve to
death -- these magic-users cannot conceive of a life without magic as being
The story follows a catalyst named Saryon and a Dead child named Jarom
as their lives converge in the making of the Darksword, a terrible weapon that
swallows up and destroys other people's magic. Along the way we explore a truly
remarkable and well-conceived society, the authors have developed the social
implications of pervasive magic with anthropological thoroughness. Both sex
and technology are regarded in this world as loathsome reminders of an
unpleasant past; our heroes, naturally, find themselves unwilling but irresistibly
involved in both.
Forging the Darksword almost dies aborning -- the portentous, off-putting
prologue is followed by an even more portentous and off-putting second
prologue, which is followed by still another portentous and downright infuriating
scene of a royal child being born Dead -- until the authors finally have mercy
and flash back to a story with a character in it.
Once the story is under way, however, it becomes quite gripping. The
style of writing is very formal, the point of view omniscient, almost as if the
authors hadn't read any fiction written after 1880. The result is a bit of stiff,
sometimes -- the dialogue could have used a few more contractions -- and the
language is faintly embarrassing when the authors attempt to rhapsodize or the
characters gush. But all in all, the weighty language sets an appropriate tone for
what is definitely not light fantasy. Later in the first book, when a dangerous but
hilarious character named Simkin plays a sort of Scarlet Pimpernel role (complete
with the euphemistic oath "sink me"), the formality serves as a delicious
counterpoint to the humor. And when Saryon makes his terrible sacrifice at the
end of Doom of the Darksword, only high and formal language would be fitting.
The Darksword Trilogy is not innovative; if anything, it's a throwback to an
earlier kind of novel. But innovation is not an absolute virtue; nor is recidivism
always a literary crime. Weis and Hickman have set out to create a fantasy that
is at once entertaining and substantial -- and they succeeded on both counts. I
would never write a book like this; it's not the way I choose to tell my tales. But
I was delighted and moved as I read it; I applaud the first two acts, and look
forward eagerly to the third.
Tom Deitz, Fireshaper's Doom (Avon, paper, 306 pp. $3.50).
A couple of years ago, Tom Deitz's Windmaster's Bane was a marvelous first
novel. Set in contemporary Georgia, it was the story of a group of teenagers
getting involved with some pretty ugly and dangerous characters from faerie. I
heartily approve of magical (as opposed to horror) fantasy that uses contemporary
American settings, and Windmaster's Bane is one of those rare fantasy novels that
I can give to friends who don't usually read fantasy.
Fireshaper's Doom is a sequel, and it shares many of the virtues of the first
book. If you liked Windmaster's Bane, reading Fireshaper's Doom will feel like
coming home, as David, Alex, and Liz get caught up in a tangle of vengeance
among the sidhe.
Unfortunately, though, Deitz seems to have misunderstood the appeal of
the first book. Perhaps because the rural Georgia setting is so familiar to him, he
didn't realize how fresh and wonderful it seemed to readers like me; perhaps
because he's still fairly new at this, he didn't realize how very ordinary his faerie
folk were. The result is that Fireshaper's Doom spends far too much time among
the rather boring gods of faerie, and nowhere near enough time with the kids in
After ten billion celtic fantasies, it's Georgia that feels exotic and
fascinating, while the sidhe are as thin as a worn-out sock. It's as if Homer, in
writing the Iliad, had virtually ignored the Greeks and spent al his time showing
us the conversations of the gods. Even the Bible only brings in supernatural
beings for a few hot special-effects scenes. Good stories are about real people.
Fireshaper's Doom is a pretty good book; it only suffers by comparison with
the very good book it follows. And since I'm not a real reviewer, but merely a
recommender of books, I will perform my humble function, and gladly
recommend them both.
Wayland Drew, Willow (Ballantine/Del Rey, paper, 276 pp, $3.95).
The official credit line on this novel is "A novel by Wayland Drew, based
on a screenplay by Bob Dolman, from a story by George Lucas." But the credit
line should certainly be extended: ". . . from a story by George, based entirely
upon every movie Lucas has even seen, and taking place in a world pretty much
borrowed from J.R.R. Tolkien."
How churlish of me. After all, this is exactly what Lucas did with Star
Wars -- bring together all the wonderful mindless space opera of the 1930s and
40s and make it real. And as I sat there in the theatre with my cliche beeper
going off every fourteen seconds, I couldn't help but admit I was having a good
time. My kids loved it -- as powerful a movie experience as they've ever had.
My daughter was disconsolate when the midwife died. Children are the perfect
audience for this film: they haven't seen it all before.
But the book. Ah, yes, the novelization. You see, I read it before I saw
the movie, just so I could review it here -- as a book. And I can tell you this: It
is a faithful adaptation of the movie. It has faithfully reproduced all of the
movie's flaws. Unfortunately, the special effects of Industrial Light & Magic and
the charm of individual performers and the sweet directorial touch of Ron
Howard were not present in the novelization.
Drew seems to be a pretty good writer, but he is trapped in the dilemma of
all novelizations. The story already exists. Somebody else wrote it. He is,
therefore, merely a translator. Not a translator from one language to another,
however -- he is translating from one medium to another, and the sad truth is
that it's damned hard to do it well.
You know the problem, because you've seen it time after time going the
other way. A good movie generally contains as much story as a long novelet or a
short novella. So to translate a novel to the screen means leaving out a lot of
stuff -- including the entire life of the characters. Working in reverse, the
"novelizer" finds he must fill up a novel's-worth of story. Yet he cannot fill it
with his own invention -- he must, like any good translator, slavishly try to
reproduce someone else's world, characters, and events. Worse yet, few
novelizers get to see the final cut of the movie -- their manuscript must be
turned in while the film is still being filmed.
The result is that Drew did about as well as one can do in a thankless job.
His prose gets purple now and then as he tries to describe what can only be
shown, or tries to show the attitude of a character who consists of nothing more
than a few lines of dialogue with an actor inserted to say them.
Can a novelization ever be a really good novel, in novelistic terms? I
imagine that it would be possible -- if the filmmaker had enough respect for the
written word to bring the novelizer into his confidence and make him a
collaborator. But when has Lucas -- or any other sf/fantasy filmmaker -- ever
shown any evidence of knowing how to read a whole book? There are a few.
John Boorman, James Cameron. Maybe some others I've missed. But to most of
them, the novelization is exactly as important as the board game, the T-shirts,
the action figures, and the coloring books. If Willow is a second-rate book, it
isn't Wayland Drew's fault -- he's a pretty good translator. It's George Lucas's