If the cover of 'Wereblood', the first half of this story, was misleading in the extreme, with its gorgeous ice ship that doesn't show up anywhere in the story at all and a title that isn't representative of the contents, 'Werenight' nails the subject matter with emphasis. For a start, the title is actually appropriate this time out, as is the artwork which depicts visually what the blurb above the title proclaims in words: 'It was Gerin the Fox against a legion of werebeasts in a desperate effort to save Elabon from destruction.'
Oh yeah, I'd read that! And, having devoured the half dozen chapters that comprised the first half of this novel inexplicably cleaved in twain, I was eager to launch into the second half dozen here in book two. Just like its predecessor, this is an easy one-session-read. Unlike 'Wereblood', however, this one has an actual ending, with the two books roughly described as the journey out and the journey back.
'Wereblood' introduced us to Gerin the Fox, a baron in the northern reaches of the Empire of Elabon, facing an invasion of Trokmoi, barbarians from north of the river Niffet, under the command of Balamung, a sorcerer of great power. Knowing that he can't beat him, Gerin sets off for Elabon, the empire's capital in the south, hoping to elicit the assistance of a sorcerer who might have enough power to do what he can't. He doesn't actually get there in that first book, though he's pretty close when it ends abruptly, after a weird episode with a strange god.
It's here, partway into the first chapter of the second book, that he makes it to Elabon and he quickly gets down to business. He drops Elise off at her uncle's place, finds Turgis's new inn and visits the Sorcerers' Collegium in search of the right wizard to travel north with him to help defeat Balamung and save the empire. Well, that's the plan, anyway. And you know what they say about the best-laid plans.
What Harry Turtledove, the author behind the pseudonym of Eric Iverson, does here that's interesting is to mess with our expectations completely. Coming into this second book, we know exactly how it's going to go because this is sword and sorcery and it always goes that way. Right? Well, not here.
Gerin has as much luck finding his helpful sorcerer as Elise has finding a new home with her uncle. Before too long, we're back on the road following the same trio north that we just followed south. So, what's changed? Not a heck of a lot, really, just a little deeper understanding of what the Empire means to our heroes and vice versa. And perspective is a good thing to have, especially as they head directly towards an inevitable battle with the Trokmoi. That's the one thing that Turtledove can't promise and not deliver. He delivers.
I have to admit that, while there are points where this started to feel like a debut novel, with plot conveniences coming out of thin air, most of them are red herrings. Who's that in this inn we just happened to stumble into? We know him! And, oh hey, he's got a hidden side that means that he's the answer to our heroes' prayers? Well sure, it seems that way, but that's not where we're going. I liked that Turtledove set up a bunch of clichés, only to tear them down again. Now, I did say 'most of them'. There was one that played out as a convenience and I'm still not sure whether I dislike it because it's a wild and unlikely coincidence or whether I like it because one in-however-many seems somehow realistic.
Plotwise, this often seems like the first half in reverse. It isn't only that we follow the Fox and his companions north rather than south. They've changed from people seeking help to people realising that there is no help but what they can provide themselves. And that change accompanies their travelling directly into trouble instead of away from it. Their resolve is the most important part of this book.
Turtledove does a pretty good job of tying up loose ends. Had this novel ended after 'Wereblood', there would have been nothing but loose ends, meaning that he had his work cut out for him here. However, the majority of the scenes that clearly set something up find their respective explanations. A few here and there don't, which is why I have a feeling that the author planned this as a series from the start.
While these first two books are really one novel, he must have had an idea that he'd be continuing the story of Gerin the Fox and the Empire of Elabon in future work. He did too, though it took a decade and a half for book three to appear. When it did, in 1994, it was 'Prince of the North', featuring the author's real name on its cover. Contrary to the expectations of his editor, I don't believe anyone picked up the book and then put it right back down again on the grounds that Turtledove was clearly not a real name. That was followed by 'King of the North' a couple of years later, and 'Fox and Empire' in 1998, its title a nod to Isaac Asimov's 'Foundation and Empire'. The synopses I see for them fit as logical extensions of what we read here.
Having devoured both volumes in under 24 hours, I have to say that I'm ready for more. I liked Gerin the Fox, who turned out to be a deeper character than he initially seemed. He's able to play the role he never expected to have, that of a baron with responsibilities to his people, without losing either his ability to fight or his far more anomalous yearning for learning. While he's certainly not the biggest and perhaps not the brightest character in the Empire of Elabon, his heart is in the right place and he's a very believable catalyst for change. I liked Van of the Strong Arm too, the outlander outsider with an air of mystery and another of experience. Elise was rather overt as a love interest, but she's engaging too and she deserves to grow as the books progress into a character with her own place in history. Everyone else is firmly playing support, but that's fine; Turtledove didn't have a lot of pages to play with here.
What's odd is that this admirable two-part debut in 1979 didn't translate into a career for Turtledove as a writer, at least not immediately. If I'm reading his bibliography correctly, his next book was a translation of 'The Chronicle of Theophanes', one of the most important texts of the Byzantine era, which Turtledove had studied for his undergraduate degree in the mid- to late-seventies. His next fiction didn't show up until 1987, when he made-up for lost time, with five novels seeing print that year, each of which takes the fantasy of the two Elabon novels and introduces it to the alternate history that would come to dominate his career. The first four comprise the 'Videssos Cycle', in which a Roman legion is transported into a world where magic is real. The other is an intriguing collection of stories called 'Agent of Byzantium', which feature, amazingly enough, a Byzantine secret agent, set in a 14th century without Islam, because Muhammad converted to Christianity instead and became a saint.
Clearly, Turtledove was writing in between 1979 and 1987, but I have no idea why none of it saw print for eight years. If only he was coming to Phoenix as the Author Guest of Honor for CoKoCon this Labor Day weekend! This will be the first question I'll ask. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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