A Magic Web With Colours Gay
Sorcerer’s Son (Book of Elementals, volume 1)
By Phyllis Eisenstein
1979’s Sorcerer’s Son is the first volume of Phyllis Eisenstein’s secondary-universe fantasy series, Book of Elementals. Sorcerer’s Son is a coming-of-age novel.
Sorcerer Smada Rezhyk proposes marriage to Sorcerer Detivev Ormoru; she declines with a simple “no.” Rezhyk concludes that this must indicate hostility, indeed must show that she is bent on his destruction! Aware that his bitter enemy’s command of nature makes her a formidable enemy, Rezhyk dispatches his most trusted demon Gildrum to distract Detivev long enough for Rezhyk to forge invincible armour for himself.
A direct attack would invite a direct response. Therefore, Gildrum takes the guise of a handsome young man named Mellor, the better to seduce the sorceress.
The demon is successful beyond their wildest dreams.
Cray never met his father Mellor, knowing him only from the stories his mother Detivev told about the man who so briefly was a guest at Castle Spinweb. Nevertheless, what the boy heard inspired him. His mother might prefer that Cray become a sorcerer like herself. Cray, however, despite having mastered a bit of magic, is determined to become a knight like his father. He will go forth and do great deeds!
Once he is old enough to leave Castle Spinweb, the young man sets out to find Mellor. What he finds is Mellor’s grave — Gildrum was prudent enough to leave no trail that led back to their demon self. Cray is determined to learn what he can about his seemingly dead father. The quest produces disheartening answers: the lord Mellor claimed to serve never heard of him and the shield Mellor bore turns out to have been stolen from another lord’s armoury. Apparently, his father was not the virtuous knight he claimed to be!
Meanwhile, Rezhyk is alarmed to discover that his enemy has a son. Surely the only reason Detivev would carry her pregnancy to term is so she could raise her child as a living weapon. Surely the mother and son will try to crush Rezhyk! It is only logical. This will never do. Rezhyk cunningly accepts the heartbroken Cray as an apprentice — not to train him but to ensure his magical skills are never properly developed.
It’s a plan so cunning that you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel. There’s just one small problem. Just as Detivev fell in love with Mellor, the demon using that name fell in love with Detivev. Gildrum has no desire to see either Detivev or Cray dead or even harmed. Although bound to Rezhyk’s will, the enslaved demon does have considerable leeway in interpreting its master’s commands.
Just how much leeway Gildrum has and how little they enjoy slavery will come as an enormous surprise to Rezhyk.
This isn’t the first 1970s fantasy novel I’ve read about a sorceress who is a single mother raising her child alone in a tower1. Was this a thing back then? Can I come up with enough examples for a tor dot com article?
There is something of a running theme in Eisenstein’s fiction about troubled families: Alaric the Minstrel likewise discovers his family tree is not all he might desire, while Shadows of Earth’s Celia is forced into undesired motherhood. Detivev at least wants her son.
Rezhyk is pretty clearly a deplorable starting from page one. It’s not just the way he leaps from learning that his marriage proposal has been turned down to being utterly convinced that Detivev is his bitter foe. He’s also an enormous jerk as a sorcerer, as his power is almost entirely based on summoning demons from their home dimension to magically bind them to obey his every wish, salacious and otherwise. Not only is he completely convinced he has every right to do so, being unclear on the difference between ability and ethics, but he is also certain his demonic slaves are happy to serve him. Of course, since none of the demons can lie to him, he could just ask if they are happy … but Rezhyk would never think to question his assumptions2.
Detivev is the more admirable character. Not all sorcerers are terrible3! She is a bit gullible when it comes to handsome demons4 claiming to be knights and she is a bit of a shut-in, perfectly happy to watch the world through her magic webs. Otherwise, she is a paragon of virtuous motherhood, protective of her son but not so much so that she stunts his growth. Still, her story is a much happier one than the Lady of Shalott, which just goes to show even a demon is a better match for any woman than Lancelot.
Poor Cray does become a better person thanks to a series of upsetting revelations and a lot of hard work. Both the knighthood to which he aspires and the sorcery he reluctantly embraces demand hard work to master — this isn’t a book where ancestry grants power5. I am sure there’s a lesson there.
I first read this forty-one years ago, which, as it turned out, was long enough ago that I had forgotten just about everything in the novel. This was an enjoyable rediscovery. I regret, therefore, to report that Sorcerer’s Son is out of print. Used bookstores are your best hope.
1: Sybel of The Forgotten Beasts of Eldwas raised in a tower and is raising her adopted son in the same tower.
2: He’s a self-styled archaeologist, on the trail of the secrets of a previous sorcerous civilization. One wonders to what degree his tendency to assume his first theory is the only right one shapes his scholarly efforts.
3: Granted, arachnophobes have been known to react badly to her legions of eight-legged servants.
4: Gildrum can shapeshift. Rezhyk prefers the demon to appear as a pretty fourteen-year-old girl. Which is as creepy as it sounds. However, unlike a lot of SF of similar vintage, the book does not appear to take Rezhyk’s side in this matter.
5: We know from history that handing down authority from parent to child often results in calamity. Consider, oh, Henry the Eighth.