Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Apr 18 16:45:56 EDT 1990

Raymond's Reviews #38

%T The White Isle
%A Darrell Schweitzer
%I Owlswick Press
%D 1989
%O hardcover, US$18.95
%P 139
%G 0-913896-26-8

If mannered high fantasy after the mode of Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell or E. R. Eddison is your dish of tea, you will enjoy this book. The dedication says this was Schweitzer's first novel, and it has the feel sometimes of a finger exercise in emulation of a style which he obviously loves very much.

The elaborate prose, the high-medieval flavor of the world, the visual gorgeousness of description, the pure-archetype characters -- it's all there, and lots of fun if you like That Sort Of Thing (I do, occasionally).

The major problem with this book is that the genre conventions make it too predictable. As Evnos the brilliant boy-prince of Iankorous marries the fair Riacinera we know that the couple is doomed; as the wizard Theremderis tells Evnos of the curse on his family's heirloom blade, we know that the Prince will eventually wield it in some terrible act which will bring down his house.

Personally, I find it very difficult to read stories about inexorable tragic dooms, not so much because of the grief and pain depicted in the victims but because of their utter helplessness. For all that Prince Evnos superficially appears to make choices, it is clear from prophecy and foreshadowing and atmosphere that his end has been fated from the beginning of time.

Thus it is that no one in the story ever emerges as a fully human being. Denied by their setting the capacity to make their own choices and thus develop as autonomous individuals, Evnos and Theremderis and all the rest are simply roles in a shadow-play.

I suspect Schweitzer's answer would begin by observing that he was aiming at a mythic quality in the narrative, and that myth is like that. But even myth, in general, does not convey quite as crushing a fatalism as we see implied in The White Isle. Even in Genesis it is not made to seem that the Fall of Man was fated.

The characters in E. R. Eddison's The Worm Ourobouros (a book stylistically very like this one) were doomed to an eternal round of heroism and tragedy, fated in the strictest sense. Eddison, though, did not try to pull the reader into a strong identification with any one; in his day the cult of the novel of character had not yet come to dominate literature. Thus, Eddison's novel is intense but not emotionally bruising.

In The White Isle, though, Schweitzer both dooms his shadow players and (in subtle ways) pulls the reader into strong identification with them. The result (for me at least) leaves me feeling as though my spirit has been mugged and beaten up. I admire Mr. Schweitzer's authorial skill but cannot really enjoy the use to which it has been put.

Perhaps it is simply a quirk of mine that I cannot romanticize pain and grief and loss very well, nor enjoy the sensation of fear (I don't read horror fiction, ever). If you don't share my aversions, you will probably be able to enjoy the stylistic gorgeousness of this book more wholeheartedly than I did. I particularly commend it to fantasy/horror fans looking for a taste of how they wrote 'em in the old days.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Wed Apr 18 16:45:56 EDT 1990

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