Saturday, April 18, 2015

With a Single Spell by Lawrence Watt-Evans

He had always intended to live a fat and lazy life on his inheritance, whether his father's gold or his master's spells; he was forced to admit to himself that he barely knew how to hold a hammer.

Back in December I wrote a little about Lawrence Watt-Evans and read The Misenchanted Sword, which I liked.  In Nashville on my holiday travels I found a cache of Watt-Evans books and brought them back to my MidWest headquarters. This week I read the second book in Watt-Evans's Ethshar series, 1987's With a Single Spell, and quite enjoyed it.

With a Single Spell takes place in the same world as The Misenchanted Sword, but centuries later.  Events from The Misenchanted Sword are coyly hinted at, which will amuse readers of that book, and similar spells and magical devices turn up, but this novel stands on its own; I think it would be fine to read With a Single Spell without having read The Misenchanted Sword first.

With a Single Spell is a light-hearted picaresque.  I tend to dislike farces and fiction full of broad jokes, and I really appreciate how Watt-Evans is able to include humor in this adventure novel without rendering the milieu or the characters ridiculous.  Watt-Evans's fantasy world and its denizens are as "believable" as those in canonical fantasies like Tolkien's, Howard's or Moorcock's, but whereas those fantasies can be portentous and heavy and follow tragic/heroic leaders as empires, societies and entire dimensions decay and collapse, Watt-Evans keeps the scale a little lower and the tone considerably lighter.

Tobas is a teenager with bad luck growing up in a little coastal town that serves as a base for pirates (Tobas and everybody in the town insist their economy relies not on piracy but on "privateering.")  Tobas's parents are already dead (his father was a pirate killed in battle while pursuing his trade) when his master, an aged wizard, passes away in his sleep.  Tobas is alone in the world, his apprenticeship cut short--he has only learned one minor spell!  So, he leaves his little home to seek his fortune, stealing and begging to survive (one of his first acts, sort of reliving his father's career, is to steal a boat from innocent people), sailing the ocean, visiting huge cities, exploring wilderness and ruins, undertaking a dangerous quest and even being transported to a bizarre netherworld.  He makes friends, falls in love, gains skill, knowledge, riches and a family, and as the book ends we are confident that he lives happily ever after, and has paid restitution for his own misdeeds, and maybe for his father's as well.
I compared The Misenchanted Sword to a Heinlein juvenile, and I think With a Single Spell also bears such a comparison.  Tobas, a young man, leaves his little village and receives an education out in the big dangerous world, facing and overcoming challenges and finding a role as a good and productive person.  Another similarity with Heinlein's work can be seen in the slightly unconventional sexual components of the book; in the world of Ethshar it is acceptable for a man to have multiple wives, and Tobas ends up marrying not one but two beautiful and intelligent women, one a talented witch who is over four hundred years old (she enjoys an eternal youth spell), the other a well-educated princess.

Watt-Evans's setting, with its many cities and kingdoms, its various schools of magic and numerous magic items and fantastical creatures, is vivid and fun, and his pacing and tone are even and comfortable.  With a Single Spell is not deep or challenging, and it doesn't have much to say about the kind of issues that books I talk about on this blog often do, like the role of the state, religion, gender roles, the Cold War, or imperialism, but it is a very enjoyable entertainment, a well-crafted wish-fulfillment fantasy about a small town boy making good in a world of dragons, pirates, and wizards.  I recommend it.

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