Novarian series

The Reluctant King by L. Sprague de Camp, Nelson Doubleday, 1985

The Novarian series is a sequence of fantasy stories by L. Sprague de Camp, published between 1968 and 1989. The series contains some of de Camp's most innovative works of fantasy, featuring explorations of various political systems, an inversion of the "rags to royalty" pattern characteristic of much heroic fantasy, a satiric look at the foibles of humanity through the eyes of a demon, and a consistently wry and ironic take on conventions of the genre that plays out by taking them to their logical (or illogical) conclusions. Another singular feature of the series is its frequent use of folk tales integrated into the plot to painlessly convey something of the background and history of the invented world. This device obviates the need for lengthy appendices, as in The Lord of the Rings.

Contents

The setting

The world

The world Novaria is part of is a parallel world to Earth, a plane of existence related to ours in that ours constitutes its afterlife. This unique conceit makes it a sort of reverse-Bangsian fantasy, or rather makes our world its Bangsian fantasy. Mankind shares this world with other intelligent beings, like the serpent people of Beraoti, the beast-men of Komilakh, and the silvans of the mountain forests. The fauna is largely that of Earth's Ice Age, while the vegetation is similar to that of present-day Earth.

In Novaria's world, the supernatural element is dominant. Magic works, though in a strictly logical fashion that often leaves its practitioners dissatisfied. Gods are real and strongly influence mortal affairs, communicating with their worshipers through dreams. Demons can, and often are, summoned from other planes of existence, which Novarians number in relation to their own (which to them is the Prime Plane).

The western continents

The two western continents where most of the series' events take place span the world's climatic zones from the arctic to the tropics. They are bounded by the Western Ocean to the west and the Eastern Ocean to the east.

The northernmost of these continents is largely desolate, consisting primarily of the steppe country of Shven, inhabited by nomads patterned after the Mongols, with the pirate isles of Algarth off its western coast and the land of Hroth to the north. It is joined to the southern continent at the southwest end by the broad isthmus of Novaria, but otherwise separated from it by the Mediterranean-like inland seas known as the Inner Sea and the Sea of Sikhon.

The more civilized southern continent contains, from west to east, the empire of Penembei, the desert of Fedirun, home to Beduin-like nomads, the tropical realm of Mulvan, and the jungles of Komilakh, inhabited by beast men; other lands, notably Beraoti, lie further south of these. The principal powers are Penembei and Mulvan. Penembei is modeled on Sumerian Mesopotamia, Ptolemaic Egypt, and the Byzantine Empire; authority there is shared between a King and a High Priestess, with considerable influence also exercised by two mutually-antagonistic sporting-political factions in the capital of Iraz, similar to those that tore Byzantium apart in the Nika riots. Mulvan is a caste-bound empire combining features of India, China and Persia. In Novaria there are small bands of wandering Mulvanians, who act as entertainers and fortune-tellers and who are plainly modeled on Gypsies.

More distant lands

East of the western continents across the Eastern Ocean are the archipelagos known as the Peppercorns, Salimor, and Gwoling. The Salimor islands comprise a monarchy mingling elements of Japan and the Philippines. Beyond the islands is an eastern continent that contains the great empire of Kuromon, based on China and Japan, and another nomad-inhabited steppe belt. West of the western continents across the Western Ocean is the country of the cannibal Paaluan sea raiders, whose appearance resmbles that of Australian Aborigines; as the Paaluans are also stated (in The Honorable Barbarian) to be a threat in the Eastern Ocean, there is evidently a navigable sea passage around either the main Novarian continent or the eastern continent, or both.

Novaria

Novaria itself, as noted above, is a broad isthmus joining the two continental masses to the north and the south. (De Camp oddly yet consistently refers to it as a peninsula, though it is plainly an isthmus in both his maps and descriptions.) Novaria is separated from the northern continent by the high Ellorna Mountains and from the southern by the great Logram Mountains. On its other sides it drains into the Western Ocean and the Inner Sea, which communicates with the Eastern Ocean via the smaller Sea of Sikhon.

Culturally Novaria bears resemblances to the eras of both Classical Greece and late Medieval Europe (Italy in particular), especially in conveying the vivid life of a cluster of city states sharing a common language and culture, though widely different in political regime and often at war with each other.

The twelve city-states Novaria is split into are ruled under a wide variety of competing governmental systems, some of them unique. Several of these are visited and their contemporary situations shown during the progress of the stories; the general history of the region is recounted from a Kortolian perspective by Jorian, the series's main protagonist, in a number of folktales he relates in the course of his adventures. The Twelve Cities and their governments (as far as these were revealed) are as follows:

  • Aussar - a despotate
  • Boaktis - a dictatorship
  • Govannion - ruled by a "hereditary usurper"
  • Ir[1] - a plutocracy ruled by a syndicate of the wealthy
  • Kortoli - a hereditary monarchy with no nobles but the royal family
  • Metouro - ruled by a secret society, originally formed to overthrow a tyrant
  • Othomae - a grand duchy with civil and military power split by the eldest legitimate and illegitimate sons of the previous ruler
  • Solymbria - an archonate, with the Archon selected by random drawing
  • Tarxia - a theocracy dedicated to a toad god deemed a minor deity in the rest of Novaria
  • Vindium - a republic of the classical variety
  • Xylar - a monarchy with kings chosen by lot and beheaded every five years
  • Zolon - an island thalassocracy ruled by a High Admiral.

The stories

The series incidentally explores various pros and cons of different modes of governance as the action moves through Novaria and various other countries. Most of the stories have satirical themes – e.g., of academic conferences (the magicians' conclave, which ends The Goblin Tower); of Monotheistic religion (the toad-god Grogolor, a minor deity in other places but the supreme god of the universe in theocratic Tarxia); of modern poetry (Jorian's tale of a king in his native Kortoli refusing to grant an award to a poem composed of randomly chosen words).

The core of the Novarian series is the "Reluctant King" trilogy, consisting of The Goblin Tower (1968), The Clocks of Iraz (1971) and The Unbeheaded King (1983), all collected as The Reluctant King (1985). The trilogy is the story of Jorian, a native of Kortoli chosen by a gruesome lottery to be king of Xylar (he caught the head of the previous king as it was thrown into a crowd). As the date for his own beheading approaches, he plots to escape Xylar and its fatal crown, following which his plan is to recover his true love and settle down in obscurity into his ideal life as a simple craftsman. Enroute to this goal he travels through much of the known world, rescues a consignment of maidens destined for the executioner's block, romances a serpent princess and steals a chest of ancient spells, matches wits with gods, escapes being sacrificed by beast men and being sold by nomads, abets a revolution in a priest-ruled city, becomes enmeshed in the sorcerous politics of a magicians' guild, repairs the clocks in a famous lighthouse tower, saves a besieged city from four enemy hosts at once, braves a perilous flight in a demon-powered bathtub, negotiates with an unreliable magician, spirits a woman from the city that has sworn to kill him, and exorcises the ghost of a cursed baron. Early on there is also a short excursion into our world, in which Jorian is frightened by a passing giant truck, has a mutually uncomprehending encounter with a police officer in a patrol car, and is very glad to get back to the familiar dangers of his own world.

Two other tales are set earlier in Novaria's history; "The Emperor's Fan," which illustrates the perils of a magical artifact, and The Fallible Fiend, a satire told the point of view of the demon Zdim, who is condemned to service in the perplexing world of humans. A final story, The Honorable Barbarian, is a sequel to the Jorian sequence, relating the adventures of his younger brother Kerin in the far east.

According to de Camp's friend and fellow writer Darrell Schweitzer, De Camp wrote one additional Novarian novel, which has "a quasi-Polynesian setting."[2] It was reportedly de Camp's last novel, represented a noticeable falling-off in quality from his better work, and was considered unpublishable. Its working title was The Sedulous Sprite.[3] It could well be a satirical tale with a non-human protagonist like The Fallible Fiend, as its title suggests it might focus on Belinka, a duty-obsessed fairy and major supporting character from The Honorable Barbarian.

Bibliography

The stories

  1. The Goblin Tower (1968), ISBN 0-345-32812-4
  2. The Clocks of Iraz (1971)
  3. "The Emperor's Fan" (1973)
  4. The Fallible Fiend (1973)
  5. The Unbeheaded King (1983), ISBN 0-345-30773-9
  6. The Honorable Barbarian (1989), ISBN 0-345-36091-5
  7. The Sedulous Sprite (unpublished)

Collected editions

  • The Reluctant King (1985) (includes The Goblin Tower, The Clocks of Iraz and The Unbeheaded King)

Notes

  1. ^ "Ir" (עיר) is Hebrew for "city."
  2. ^ Darrell Schweitzer, message on Yahoo Discussion Group d_for_de_Camp, April 28, 2007. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/d_for_de_Camp/message/43 Accessed 6/22/07.
  3. ^ Darrell Schweitzer, message on Yahoo Discussion Group d_for_de_Camp, June 18, 2007. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/d_for_de_Camp/message/231 Accessed 6/22/07.

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