Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Fri May 04 01:15:46 EDT 1990

Raymond's Reviews #45

%T Silk Roads and Shadows
%A Susan Shwartz
%I TOR Books
%D Mar 1988
%O paperback, US$3.95
%P 337
%G 0-812-55411-6

In Silk Roads And Shadows, Susan Shwartz gives us the story of the princess Alexandra, sister to the Emperor of an alternate timeline's Byzantium, who journeys into the East to steal silkworms needed to revive the Byzantine silk industry and finds there far more than she bargains for. From the beginning her journey is haunted by the sendings of her aunt Theodora, the sorceress who blighted Byzantium's silkworms and covets its crown. Alexandra is saved at first by an encounter with the mysterious King of the mystic city of Shamballah. He warns her that her only chance of survival is to tread the perilous Diamond Path, to learn the Vajrayana magical discipline of esoteric Buddhism. Her journey becomes a spiritual oddyssey as well as a geographical one, a series of testing which can end only when she meets death or transcends it.

The prose styling is good; the research that went into the world-building was obviously both wide-ranging and thorough (I particularly appreciated the sensitivity with which Shwartz approaches the Vajrayana and syncretizes the half-a-dozen religious traditions known to her characters into a coherent whole around it). The adventures Alexandra and her friends endure have all the splendor and terror and magical brilliance of the Arabian Nights tales; on that level, the book is a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, its appeal for me was nearly ruined by a major flaw common in the subgenre -- the attitudes and very personalities of the major characters were ludicrously anachronistic for the historical context. In this respect and a few others the book uncomfortably approaches the "MZB-wannabee" syndrome I discussed in RR#34.

As in much genre SF and fantasy, the protagonist is a strong individual set against her culture's values, and the plot depends largely on how effectively she can get free of them to do "what is right" in a wider sense. The problem with this is that the kind of individuality that could even conceive of its ethical problems in that way is a modern Western invention; tolerance of non-conformity even in one's own thoughts is, historically, a very exceptional trait.

In SF, which is set in the future, this is not (usually) a problem. In whole-cloth secondary worlds like Tolkien's, one can simply handwave the question. But Alexandra's psychological modernity is so out of place in a 9th-century Byzantine as to jar one's teeth. The `real' Alexandra (if the actual doings and writings of pre-moderns are any guide) would have been far more parochial and culture-bound, like the novel's Prince Li Shou who (though he is genuinely xenophilic) is ultimately doomed by his inability to break his own conditioning. Nor it is it only Alexandra who acts like an anachronism. Haraldr, her faithful guardsman, displays none of the grim fatalism attested by the Norse sagas or the historical lives of its heroes; he is too autonomous, too willing to conceive of life as a struggle with fate that the human individual might actually win.

Admittedly, it's hard for a 20th-century author to get inside such a mindset. And in fiction that aims to be simple escapism perhaps one shouldn't demand it. But it's precisely because Shwartz otherwise displays such talent and craftsmanship that the problem stands out. If she continues to do historical fantasy, I hope she will put more effort into making her characters psychologically plausible in context.

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Fri May 04 01:15:46 EDT 1990

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