1969’s The Warlock in Spite of Himself is the debut1 volume in Christopher Stasheff’s subseries focusing on Rod Gallowglass (subseries because it also features in a greater, more wide-ranging series).
Having overthrown the Proletarian Eclectic State of Terra (PEST), the Decentralized Democratic Tribunal (DDT) established the Society for Conversion of Extraterrestrial Nascent Totalitarianisms (SCENT) to seek out and liberate worlds from dictatorships. Aristocratic Rod Gallowglass is a SCENT agent.
Accompanied by his faithful robot Fess (short for Faithful Cybernetic Companion), Rod infiltrates the backwater world Graymarye, determined to deliver to its clearly subjugated population the democracy they would want if only they knew what was good for them.
Rod quickly realizes that Graymarye was settled by the long-lost Romantic Emigrés. Enamored of the romantic past, the Romantic Emigrés were determined to mold their society according to the tenets of creative anachronism. Judging by the highly unusual society to be found on Graymarye, the founders may well have succeeded.
Rather than the usual sort of devolved colony he expects, Rod finds a feudal society straight out of the Middle Ages. At the top, a queen. Under her, an aristocracy. Under them, the commons. Because of the rudimentary communications technology, the aristocrats enjoy considerable leeway in how they run their individual domains.
Now, however, Queen Catherine plans to make sweeping changes. Rather than allow each of the Noble Lords to decree and administer their own laws, she will appoint judges who will provide all with standardized justice. Priests will be taught by a centralized education system, which should ensure that every cleric will teach the same doctrines (doctrines chosen by the queen).
Rod (the secret agent) believes that Catherine has misjudged matters. Centralization will fail, she will be overthrown, and the old ways will rise once more. However, there is a factor Rod fails to properly appreciate. Catherine’s first reforms had to do with the treatment of witches and warlocks. On any other world, these would be deluded fools. On Gramarye, witches and warlocks definitely have powerful ESP and as reluctant as Rod is admit it, magic may be real as well. The queen’s allies are more powerful than Rod understands.
Balancing that? Scheming totalitarians from the future believe Gramarye is the key to the path that human destiny will take. The queen’s enemies are far more powerful than Rod could have guessed.
Were I to disregard my self-imposed rules re reviewing only books I read as a teen, this would have been a review of Niven and Barnes’ Dream Park. However, perusing the ISFDB entry for that novel, I discovered that while the novel appeared early enough for me to have read it as a teen, the edition I actually read, the one with this cover
didn’t appear until the month after my twentieth birthday. So close!
The synopsis I gave you may not sound promising. Let me reassure you that the book is worse than this synopsis would hint. Too much tedious word play and childish politics2. The setting is implausible and the worldbuilding so lazy as to be not worth criticizing. The characters are pure cardboard. Worst of all, in an era when most novels were compact, editors at Ace for some reason saw fit to inflict on readers a science fantasy novel almost three hundred pages long.
One might excuse the novel by saying standards were lower in 1969. Yet, when I look at Ace’s 1969 offerings, while there are many obvious duds (Enterprise Stardust, Teenocracy, various Edgar Rice Burroughs novels), there were also standouts (Lafferty, Davidson, Brunner, Le Guin, etc.). Why did Ace decide to publish this?
As bad as this novel is, it sold. Stasheff went on to a successful career. A Wizard in Spite of Himself was followed by numerous sequels, of which I have attempted just one3, spin-offs, and various unrelated works. Stasheff’s career spanned five decades, while far superior authors were lost to the midlist death spiral. What a marvelous world in which we live, wherein a novel this wretched can nevertheless be rewarded with success.
It would have been even more marvelous had I never read any of Stasheff’s books, but one cannot always have what one wants.
1: Why if it is the first is it numbered the second volume? Because Stasheff wrote a prequel.
2: A mob of irate peasants provides an early hint that outside agitators are riling up the rabble. Some people might have drawn parallels with Spartacus, Wat Tyler or Guillaume Cale. Stasheff goes a different direction:
“No, this is a proletarian revolution – a prelude to a totalitarian government.”
3: King Kobold, which I didn’t finish. I still own my copy for some reason.