What happens when the magic goes away? More specifically, what happens when a small but strategically located region that has relied on its hexmasters for centuries is forced to deal with the sudden disappearance of its all-powerful magic? Simon Morden explores the answer to these questions in his new fantasy novel Arcanum.
So far, Simon Morden is best known for his neo-cyberpunk trilogy-plus-one starring Samuil Petrovich. The original trilogy won the 2012 Philip K. Dick Award. I bounced off its first book Equations of Life (my review) and never went back, but decided to give Arcanum a try anyway, mainly to see how the author would handle this very different genre. Despite some reservations, I’m glad I did.
One of the most interesting aspects of Arcanum is the fact that it starts off with an interesting, alt-history-like twist, and then, right from the start, throws in a second twist. Morden explains the first change in the novel’s introduction: when Alaric sacked Rome about ten centuries before the start of Arcanum, the Goths’ wild sorcery helped bring the city and the Empire down. Unlike in our timeline, the Western Roman Empire never regained its influence and Christianity never spread across Europe. Central and Northern Europe fractured into small kingdoms. Worship of the Old Gods never disappeared, and magic remained a force to be reckoned with.
As Arcanum gets started, about ten centuries after the Sack of Rome, Carinthia is a small but centrally located former palatinate of what used to be the Roman Empire. It maintains control of the all-important mountain passes and trade routes thanks to its hexmasters, whose fearsome magic can level any opposing army. Likewise, Carinthia’s economy relies on magically powered mills and barges. The kingdom, whose rulers trace their lineage back all the way to Alaric, is essentially a tiny superpower located smack in the middle of Europe.
The Teutons, as is their wont every century or two, decide to challenge Carinthia’s control by demanding passage through its lands. So insulting is the Teutons’ envoy that King Gerhardt has no choice but to dispatch a punitive expedition. As always, he will ride at the head of the column in enchanted armor, wielding the magical sword of his line, and also as always, the real fighting is expected to be handled by the Order’s hexmasters, who typically flatten any opposing armies with columns of fire from their floating platforms.
But this time, only one hexmaster answers the King’s call—not even a true master, but an adept, and a female one at that. And so it begins…
Arcanum is a huge, sprawling novel with a large cast of point-of-view characters. At the onset, there’s Carinthian huntmaster Peter Büber, Assistant Librarian Frederik Thaler, the adept Nicoleta Agana, and Gloria Morgenstern, a young unmarried woman from Juvavum’s Jewish neighborhood. As the novel progresses, other characters (who shall remain unnamed here to avoid spoilers) step into the spotlight. Despite only covering a few years, the novel’s large and varied cast helps give it an epic scope.
One of the things I loved about this novel is that many of the characters are, in one or more ways, minorities or underdogs. If Arcanum has one obvious theme, it’s the ability of such characters to step up and take charge under pressure. The same applies to groups of people, most notably the Jewish population of Carinthia, who prior to the start of the novel were marginalized both for religious reasons and for their refusal to use magic, and who turn out to be (in the words of one character) a “deep well of competence” and nothing short of crucial in the development of a post-magic Carinthia.
Arcanum is also, in many ways, a love song to the power of rationality and the pursuit of knowledge. As the magic disappears, the previously neglected library—meaningfully located in the old Roman Pantheon—becomes crucial, and the overweight and previously overlooked librarian Thaler turns into an indefatigable source of marvel. Characters like Thaler and Gloria Morgenstern’s grumpy, old-fashioned father (not to mention Gloria herself) are unlikely and wonderful heroes to find in a novel that starts out with a gory battle between humans and giants.
Giants? Yes, Arcanum features several non-human races—besides giants there are dwarves, elves, and unicorns, just to name a few. Simon Morden approaches these in an interesting and unique way, doing something that I hadn’t quite seen in fantasy before but fits perfectly with the theme of the novel. For that alone, Arcanum is definitely worth checking out.
Not that the novel doesn’t have its problems, some of which may outweigh the interesting twists on traditional fantasy Morden introduces. Pacing is an issue: some scenes are needlessly drawn out, while others feel rushed. Related to this, the novel is frankly longer than it should be. After a while, the direction is clear, the point made, the theme obvious—and yet, several hundred pages remain. As much as I enjoyed this novel, it sometimes felt like it overstayed its welcome.
A more positive way to put this: Arcanum, which is divided into four distinct sections, could possibly have been developed further and turned into four separate books. There’s something very generous about the fact that Morden and Orbit crammed this entire story arc into one big volume, because in another universe it could definitely have been stretched and milked out into several books.
At the same time, for such a hefty tome, there’s what I can only call a lack of weight to the narrative. Some things just happen too easily. A major, civilization-changing evolution sometimes feels almost unexceptional because it takes place so quickly. Everything that happens in this novel—where “everything” includes social changes that historically took centuries—takes place over the course of a year or two. Obviously that’s the point, necessity being the mother of invention, but the sweeping decisions and life-altering changes often feel more than a little bit facile.
Despite Arcanum’s problems, it’s a captivating novel as well as, in a way, an interesting commentary on fantasy as a genre. More importantly, it’s hard not to root for its characters, who have to overcome their backgrounds and shortcomings and the sheer fact that the entire foundation of their society’s fabric has suddenly been ripped away. It’s a story about very human characters who, all of a sudden, have to learn to be just, well… human.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on January 27th, 2014.