Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Tue Apr 03 17:15:49 EDT 1990

Raymond's Reviews #34

%T Call of Madness
%A Julie Dean Smith
%I Ballantine/Del Rey
%D April 1990
%O paperback, US$4.95
%P 311
%G 0-345-36327-2

There's a large subgenre of contemporary fantasy written by women I think of as "Marion Zimmer Bradley Wannabees" that clogs the shelves of chain bookstore all over the US. An "MZB-wannabee" author and book can be spotted by presence of most of the following diagnostics:

  1. The protagonist and/or a majority of the strong characters are female, and one of them is an obvious idealized projection of the author.
  2. The prose-construction is passable -- not great, but not odoriferously awful either.
  3. The characterization is better than SF's average, with protagonist and supporting characters often quite engaging.
  4. The world-building is shoddy in the extreme, combining derivative fantasy elements with a romanticized, anachronism-laden SCA version of medieval or dark-ages Europe (my girlfriend calls this the "medieval mystery-meat" effect).
  5. Either the book has explicit political feminism as an obvious subtext or the range of possibilities assumed for women in pre-industrial, pre-birth-control societies is unrealistically wide.
  6. The book seems aimed at adolescent females and young women and often has the structure of a bildungsroman.
  7. The acquisition of magical power is treated as an allegory of sexual maturation and often confused with it.
  8. The author has three names (and uses them all) and hails from California (spiritually if not geographically :-)).

Most of the implausible parade of sword-wielding leather-strap women that have infested fantasy lately obviously stepped out of MZB-wannabee daydreams of one kind -- and then there's the other, the young-sorceress-learning-to-use-her-powers book. Julie Dean Smith's Call Of Madness is a very typical example of this type.

Athaya Trelaine is the unhappy princess of Caithe, a small kingdom where the Church traditionally kills the `Lorngeld' (those born to magic) when they begin to come into their powers. Her unfeeling father and shrewish stepmother (yes, there's an evil stepmother) drive her to seek dangerous excitements in low places. Part of what ails her is her unconsummated affair with the captain of the palace guard, a good man she wants desperately to marry but cannot.

She shares the Caitheans' prejudices against the Lorngeld, and so is doubly shocked when she discovers that she is one of them herself. She knows that her father, who has some magical skill but is not Lorngeld, is working to end the killing; she fears that disclosure of her secret would force her into marriage with the Lorngeld prince of a neighboring kingdom that values its mageborn. But while she keeps the secret she can get no training in her powers, and an untrained Lorngeld is doomed to madness and a self-destructive end...

Well, it's all fairly predictable from there. There's nothing overtly wrong with this book, if you can ignore the paper-mache stage settings and cliche-ridden plot. If you can deal with it on those terms, it's even enjoyable in its own clumsy, earnest way. I give it the first Raymond's Review Rhinestone Starstone Award for Conspicuous MZB-wannabeeness. Enjoy it, if you can.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Tue Apr 03 17:15:49 EDT 1990

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>