Michael Scott Rohan and Allan J. Scott’s 1992 A Spell of Empire: The Horns of Tartarus is an alternate-history fantasy novel.
Apprentice alchemist and hobbyist musician Volker barely survives his master’s exploration of forbidden forces. Now without a master or home, the half-elf discovers that his magical talents and his musical skills aren’t good enough, or impressive enough, to secure employment … until Volker meets tone-deaf Ulrich Tragelicht of Worms, dealer in wines and spices. Volker is just the employee that Ulrich needs.
But first, some history.
Tiring of the constant turmoil in Constantinople, the Emperor Constans moved to Syracusa in Sicily, taking the seat of government with him. As for the barbarians in the Transalpine lands, Constans wanted nothing to do with them. Let them form an empire if they so choose.
Centuries later, Christianity and the older religions still co-exist. The Nibelung Empire lies to the north of the former Old Empire. The Roman Empire’s successor state is often known as the Southern Empire. The Southern Empire is vast, decadent, rich, and (thanks to pirates, bandits, monsters, and worse) fairly cut off from the Nibelung lands. Of ten ships that set out for Sicily, perhaps one will make the round trip successfully.
Nibelung merchant Ulrich has assembled an expedition by promising his backers that he knows of a secret and comparatively safe route to the Middle Sea. However, he requires specialized help: people who are talented in both magic and music. Ulrich knows some magic, but he’s hopeless with music; he’s tone-deaf. Thus a position that magus-magician Volker can fill: recruiter of appropriately skilled people.
Volker recruits other helpers:
- the Norseman Thorgrim Thryhyrning, who cannot cast magic but can reliably sense it,
- the Amorican Guy de Guillac, master of alcohol-based magic,
- and finally, lapsed votaress Dani, with whom Volker is not immediately smitten.
Before the expedition sets out, Ulrich confesses to Volker that the expedition has a secret purpose. “Ulrich” is only the latest name the man has used. When he was younger, the Master Magus was an Imperial Inquisitor. The man now known as Ulrich discovered a plot mounted by a Tartarus-worshipping cult. Ulrich took it upon himself to confound the demon-worshippers and got as far as seizing a relic that is key to the plot: a horn that could lead to its mate. It’s of no use to tone-deaf Ulrich, but with a team of musical mages, he has a chance against the cult.
Ulrich’s cunning plan to reach the Southern Empire, find the other horn, and confound the cultists is imperiled when the cult attacks Ulrich and Volker. The Master Magus manages to save Volker. The cost is Ulrich’s own life.
Volker resolves to see Ulrich’s quest through to the end. Therefore, he lies to Thorgrim, Guy, and Dani (with whom Volker is definitely not besotted), as well as Ulrich’s merchant allies: all is well. Ulrich has been delayed, but Volker has been fully briefed and can lead the expedition until such time as Ulrich catches up with them.
Volker is lying through his teeth. He has a general idea of the planned route, but much is still unknown. The journey will be dangerous and Volker has no idea how Ulrich planned to circumvent the hazards. Volker, Thorgrim, Guy, and Dani (on whose features Volker’s thoughts often fall for purely platonic reasons) will simply have to rise to the occasion.
Too bad the enemy has an informant in the party and will be kept apprised of their every move.
Some people may have yearned for a fantasy novel in which the Emperor Constans talks like Mario and Luigi from Mario Brothers. Look no further!
As all fantasy novels must, this novel has maps. I found them unreadable. Of course, this book was published a long time ago, when England was overrun by barbarians and maps were drawn up by monks when their monasteries weren’t being plundered by Vikings.
My copy of this book is the 1992 Orbit mass market paperback, on whose cover is clearly emblazoned A Spell of Empire: The Horns of Tartarus. Later editions opt for the simpler title, A Spell of Empire. The original title suggests to me the possibility that Rohan and Scott planned more than one book in the Spell of Empire series. Alas, the writers of Rohan never produced a second volume in the series.
Furthermore, I’ve seen assertions that this novel began as a Games Workshop Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay tie-in novel. I’ve never seen confirmation of this from any one affiliated with Games Workshop, but various details in the setting suggest that WFRP could have been an inspiration. That said, here are a lot of differences between the game and the novel. For one thing, the novel has far fewer spiky bits.
On the minus side, the writing is sometimes uneven and the plot is linear and repetitious. The crew travels from one festering hellhole to the next, only to discover some new and unexpected supernatural danger is waiting for them. They always manage to survive through applied pluck, cunning, and skill, then venture on to discover more horrible surprises. While the party is being targeted, one does have to wonder how human life survives the abundance of supernatural threats in this world1.
On the plus side, the book really didn’t need a more complex plot. Watching people nearly die over and over is inherently entertaining. Also, while all of the characters have their little quirks, this isn’t a collection of Rincewindian nincompoops2 out of their depth. This is a collection of highly skilled specialists out of their depth. While they may lack confidence and vital information, the group is competent. Also, they’re a likeable lot, which I find a bonus.
While the characters don’t have much fun, the reader will. I really wish there had been more books in this series.
A Spell of Empire is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Kobo). A Spell of Empire is not available from Chapters-Indigo.
1: The world building leans more on funny than verisimilitude. It may be best not to think too deeply about certain aspects of the setting, such as why moving the Empire’s capital from Constantinople to Syracusa somehow facilitates an abundance of supernatural creatures all across Europe.
2: There are worse parties of adventurers: unpleasant sociopaths who are just competent enough that one hopes that they’ll die (sociopaths) and yet also hopes that they’ll surmount yet another difficulty and survive (competent). I am looking at you, Gregory House!