Warlock Civics Teacher
The Warlock In Spite Of Himself by Christopher Stasheff
1969 is fast becoming a landmark year people use to capture the essence of an era. Much like 1929 or 1860, simply uttering the year brings forth memories of strife, searching for understanding and the last gasps of cultural revolution.
The year began with hostilities in Vietnam still underway, but changing as Sweden officially recognized North Vietnam as a country. Nuclear tests still took place in the Pacific and General Franco declared a state of emergency in Spain. All of that took place in January of 1969; the year actually had larger, more significant events, proving once again that we don't necessarily live in more complex times, but the speed of global communication allows us to learn about events much faster.
This geopolitical upheaval was the backdrop against which Christopher Stasheff penned his light fantasy novel, The Warlock In Spite Of Himself. Given the serious issues of the day, one can excuse the occasional aside regarding war, economics and government. Stasheff, writing in what was one of the most culturally open times to that point in history, instead wrote like a Jonathan Swift disciple and buried a civics lesson inside a light fantasy novel.
"My principal Design was to Inform, and not to amuse thee," Swift wrote, and readers quickly learn that Stasheff's puns, pseudoscience and plot mask a great deal of information. This story, and its many sequels, educate under the guise of entertainment, much like Stasheff's Cholly character on the former prison planet Wolmar whose main purpose is to educate without the pupil knowing they are learning.
The Plot In Exactly One Hundred Words
Rod d'Armand is the scion of a cybernetics empire who joins an inter-stellar organization that protects fledgling governments. On the planet Gramayre, he helps prevent civil war and maintains a benevolent monarchy while simultaneously learning that local flora creates extrasensory abilities in a significant percentage of natives. Those natives, called witches and warlocks, can create new life forms, which causes elves, fairies and other mythical races to evolve over time. Rod befriends the ruling class and he settles on the planet, betrothed to a beautiful and powerful witch, who doesn't know that she is the daughter of the Elf King.
What Works Well
Readers will learn about different types of government. This approach is substantially toned down in later volumes, but Stasheff shows no compunction about using expository dialogue to educate. The lessons are shrouded in pun-based acronyms (DDT, PEST, etc.), but are still very much lecture-based.
Oddly enough, the pseudo-science holds together. Once the reader accepts faster-than-light (FTL) travel and other scientific advances, its relatively easy to accept that some bizarre growth on a planet like Earth's can mutate h. sapiens. A brilliant back story allows Stasheff to create an alternate Middle Ages that collides with technology when he has ultra-rich members of the Society of Creative Anachronisms flee persecution and settle Gramayre by adopting the names of that era's nobility. At once familiar but different, this is an excellent method to bridge the ages.
Stasheff's light fantasy also works very well. The fairy race is well developed and their infiltration of the real world is another nice touch. One but has to believe and perhaps, just maybe mind you, evidence of the fairy folk will be presented. They, of course, can appear to any human, but simply choose not to do so.
Finally, the buddy aspect of Rod and his computer, Fess, who transplants his brain into an iron horse to fit in to the culture, is a necessary element that does an excellent job of making the book's tone lighter.
What Doesn't Work Well
The romance between Rod and Gwen is awkwardly written with a style that jumps between Heinlein's hedonism and Norton's unwritten words. I would have preferred a single style because Rod's character initially suffers from these jumbled contrasts. Queen Catherine, herself a witch, is also somewhat of the stereotypical young female ruler, mixing bouts of whimsy with a petulant attitude. Stasheff uses sexual tension between Catherine and Rod to heighten the story's intensity, but an ardent feminist will toss the book across the room, murmuring about lack of enlightenment.
The Bottom Line, Dog Earred Pages And All
If you are going to read the series, it is best to start here at the beginning. Most of the later works can stand alone, but the earlier works truly benefit from the grounding one receives in this story. Light fantasy readers who enjoy Bob Asprin or Anthony's Apprentice Adept series should find this enjoyable. Remember too, that this story is more than three decades old now and Stasheff has shown a great deal of growth as a writer in that time. If you have read his more recent work, you may be surprised to see just how much better his writing has become.