A world of ancient magics

The March North — Graydon Saunders
Commonweal, book 1


Few now live who recall the great days of USENET newsgroups such as rec.arts.sf-lovers, rec.arts.sf.fandom, and soc.singles [1]. Long ago, in that time mortal folk called the nineteen nineties, these groups were vibrant and interesting; we strode like gods across the internet. Well, we had even more arguments than the deities, but a lot less incest, which I think balances it all out. Graydon Saunders was one of the regulars, whom we called, in our quaint argot, ‘regulars.’ He became a writer of books. I became a reviewer of books. I am sure you can see where this is going.

2014’s The March North is set in a world where the written word has been around for perhaps a hundred thousand years, or perhaps even longer. Where magic has incessantly shaped and reshaped the environment (geological and biological). Where you cannot understand this world without knowing of magic and its history; it would be like trying to make sense of our world while ignoring the existence of grasses.

For the various intelligent species (both evolved and created), this is a world where outbreaks of dark and malevolent magical overlords are as common as century droughts.

But not in the Commonweal, an enclave of thinking beings, many of whom (but not all) are human (or mostly so). The Commonweal has worked out a way for the little folk and the great masters of magic to coexist, without requiring the little folk to become the slaves or worse of the mages, or for the mages to be overthrown and brutally killed as often as it took to actually kill them [2]. The Commonweal’s way makes great demands on its citizens, but what its people get in return is an existence that isn’t an endless parade of chaos, brutal exploitation, and violent collapse.

The Commonweal is an island of not-suckery in a vast sea of violent chaos. Much of its energies are devoted to deterring incursions from ambitious or desperate neighbors. Due to the …. limited might be being too generous… political skills of the Commonweal’s neighboring communities, the Commonweal doesn’t need to worry about foreign subversion, but it does have to keep an eye out for invasions. Which brings us to the plot of this novel.

One of the hellholes bordering the Commonweal is the Archonate of Reems, whose internal state of affairs is a bit of a mystery; there is no evidence in the book that anyone in this world engages in peaceful diplomatic relations or even cross-border trade. Immigration seems unlikely as well [3]. The Archonate is, however, known to have ambitions (or, who knows, a great screaming need) to expand into the Commonweal. The province of Westcreek happens to be the first road bump on the path into the Commonweal for anyone invading from Reems. The Creeks of Westcreek pride themselves on living in a tidy province where nothing of note ever happens. Like so many self-perceptions, that one is wildly wrong.

The first hint that history may be happening is that a number of the Commonweal’s greatest mages suddenly arrive in Westcreek to perform their periodic required public service, to wit, supporting the Westcreek militia. The militia, led by a mysterious first-person narrator identified only as the Lieutenant Captain,finds itself in desperate need of magical support.

The novel gives us a front line view of how war works in a world with abundant magic. The fighting is brutal, bloody, and oddly modern-seeming. By the end, one is a little surprised that the casualty rates are as low as they are, which is to say, not everyone dies.

There are at least two ways to approach world-building for a fantasy story: 1) start with the world you want to write in and work backwards from there to the rules that would underlie it, or, as I believe Watt-Evans, Duncan, and now, Saunders have done, 2) start with some basic rules that the secondary world obeys and see where they take you.

Saunders’s thought experiment seems to have been two-fold: what would a world shaped by magic for a long, long time look like and how could it avoid devolving into an endless sequence of dark and terrible overlords? I can assure you that the result is not Western Europe circa 1200 with bonus dragons and wizards. This is a world that accumulates new species, new ecologies, and magical quicksands very quickly, It’s a little like Malazan with someone’s thumb firmly on fast-forward.

This may just be my own idiosyncratic thing, but … whenever I run across a work, speculative fictional or otherwise, that posits a small island of comparative virtue in a vast sea of stygian darkness, it creeps me the hell out. While the Commonweal isn’t populated by saints—their top wizards typically racked up an impressive list of crimes against humanity before being slapped into domesticity, and the narrator himself comes from a mage-created race whose own members are torn over the question of whether they are weapons or monsters—even the beings from outside the Commonweal who aren’t Dark Overlords themselves have been so warped by having lived under them that it seems impossible for them to live peacefully along side citizens of the Commonweal.

The treatment of the conflict and its aftermath—dealing with PSTD, which can be particularly hard on the lingering dead, and explaining to families that their kids aren’t coming home in the flesh—reminded me a bit of Glen Cook’s Black Company trilogy. Only a bit; Saunders isn’t as operatically glum as Cook often is. And he has much tighter control of his plot.

Back in the day, Graydon was notorious for a compressed and idiosyncratic style of writing that did for online communication what a squirt of crazy glue up the nostrils does for free and easy breathing. This novel is by no means as opaque and enigmatic as Graydon could be on rasf-l and its successors (due, I am given to understand, in great part to his talented editor, Marna Nightingale [4])—but at the same time he’s not interested in the sort of narrative handholding you might see in works by, oh, Brandon Sanderson or Tony Daniel. I am reminded of the late John M. Ford, another highly literate and intelligent author who was reluctant to explain what was, to the author, obvious and in no need of explanation.

In the hands of a more conventional author (or editor, if the author were to fall into the tentacles of some vast, soulless traditional publishing firm), this book would be about twice as long as it is. As it is, it is very lean and extremely dense. Go into this expecting to have to pay close attention. Many details that seemed obvious or unimportant to the author were omitted, so you may have to apply skills honed by years of sff reading to fully comprehend this book. (I am not sure what readers new to fantasy would make of this; lack of expectations might be an asset here.) However, if you are bored with endless meandering, undisciplined trilogies, quartets, etc., tired of fustian prose and slapdash, ramshackle worldbuilding, this might be the … ah … glass of T-Stoff you are looking for.

I would recommend this to your attention. The March North can acquired from Google here (if a guideline on downloading is required, check here). It is also available from Kobo here.

1: Which has a very misleading name; it wasn’t at all what you would imagine.

2: Given that the foot soldiers in this novel are only somewhat inconvenienced by having their mortal shells killed and then burned to ash, I don’t know what would be enough to 100% kill a wizard as dead as Bucky Barnes and Ben Parker. Maybe the best you could do is to find the magical version of a black hole and feed them into that.

3: We do get see some outsiders try to beg their way into the Commonweal. However, their attempt to resemble acceptable immigrants is a dismal failure. They promise to buy women instead of stealing them, which earns them this response:

“I am a Standard-Captain of the Line of the Commonweal. I serve the Law of the Commonweal, and none living. It is not given to me in that law to admit armies, nor the soldiers of armies, nor the survivors of armies, who had sought to invade, into land of the Commonweal.”
“That law permits you to come without arms, and to petition for entry, but I tell you as surely as death comes to all living, if you believe women are given in trade or purchase you shall not be admitted nor could you prosper.”
A lot of harm, before we hanged them all.

The fact that there’s a law governing the conditions under which people can enter the Commonweal suggests that there are immigrants—but the exchange just quoted, and what we see of the world outside, leads me to suspect that the fraction of foreign-born Commonwealians is fairly low.:

4: Bear in mind that my prose requires daily intervention to transform it from James-sprechese into comprehensible English.

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