Friday, December 19, 2014

The Misenchanted Sword by Lawrence Watt-Evans

No Ethsharitic had ever killed a shatra in hand-to-hand combat, Valder knew--but he resolved to try.  The sword's magic might possibly give him the edge he needed to do it.

In my teens I read Lawrence Watt-Evans' The Cyborg and the Sorcerers and enjoyed it quite a lot.  Decades later I still recall parts of it.  For whatever reason, I never read any more books by Watt-Evans, but a year ago I purchased a 1989 copy of 1985's The Misenchanted Sword, the first of several novels set in the land of Ethshar, and this week I read it.

The land of Ethshar has been at war with the Northern Empire for as long as anybody can remember, and Valder is a conscript in the army of Ethshar, one of three million such draftees.  As the novel begins Valder, a scout trapped behind enemy lines, is fleeing three Northern soldiers.  Magic is common in this world, and the people of the Northern Empire worship demons; one of Valder's pursuers is a sorcerer, and another is a shatra, a sort of demon/human hybrid.  Valder is concealed by a hermit, an Ethsharitic wizard, and narrowly escapes death.

The wizard then casts various spells on Valder's sword, but doesn't explain to Valder what they are or how they work.  Valder sets off back homewards, and along the way, besides having to deal with such threats as dragons, demons, and enemy soldiers, he has to figure out how to use his enchanted weapon.  As we often see in these fantasy stories, the magic sword will basically fight for its bearer: "Valder made no attempt to direct it; his hand went where the sword chose to go."  Even mediocre fencer Valder can now hack and slash with the best of them!  But several of the sword's wizardly attributes are inconvenient, and some amount to burdensome curses.

When he reaches the Ethsharitic lines the army's staff of magic users figures out much of the magic of the sword, and, because the sword makes Valder almost unbeatable in one-on-one hand-to-hand combat, the army's commanders send Valder off on assassination missions, deep into the northern reaches of the Northern Empire.

The Misenchanted Sword is not a traditional sword and sorcery Conan/Elric/Grey Mouser tale, nor is it a Tolkein-style epic of high fantasy.  It lacks the romance or poetry or melodrama of many fantasy stories, and instead is quite rational and realistic, almost low key.  The characters act like ordinary 20th century people, not larger than life figures of myth.  It is not nearly as gritty or cynical as something Glen Cook would write, and while you might call it light-hearted, it is not (thank heavens) full of dumb jokes.

In fact, The Misenchanted Sword reminded me quite a bit of a Heinlein juvenile, one of those in which a young person comes of age and learns about the world and life in the midst of an adventure or a period of crisis.  Watt-Evans' novel includes a surprising amount of realistic politics and economics, for example, and the second part of the story, in which Valder is acting as the army's special forces squad, focuses more on Valder's personal relationships and "down time" at HQ than his desperate missions.  The war ends (due to cataclysmic divine intervention that happens off stage) and Watt-Evans includes long scenes in which Valder witnesses the effect of peace after centuries of war on people, politics and the economy, and tries to figure out what he will do with his own life.  In the final third of the book Valder is a small businessman, an innkeeper.

One of the many spells on the sword is one that preserves Valder's life, but not his youth; like Tithonus, he risks living virtually forever as an immobile mindless vegetable.  When he begins losing his sight in his sixties, Valder sets forth from his inn to try to find a wizard who can free him from this curse. 

An entertaining story with an interesting premise and a competent, unobtrusive writing style.  I enjoyed The Misenchanted Sword and if I run into the second or third of the Ethshar paperbacks I am likely to read them.  

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