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Walk of Life

In the Red Lord’s Reach  (Tales of Alaric the Minstrel, volume 2)

By Phyllis Eisenstein 

7 May, 2024

Big Hair, Big Guns!


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Phyllis Eisenstein’s 1989 In the Red Lord’s Reach is a secondary-world fantasy fix-up. Red Lord is the second and to-date-final published book in her Tales of Alaric the Minstrel series.

Having escaped his family (as detailed here), Alaric sets his eyes on the north. What wonders are hidden beyond the forbidding mountains between Alaric and the semi-legendary Northern Sea?

Alaric’s journey through the mountains is facilitated by his natural gift, the ability to teleport to any location he can visualize1. Nevertheless, when he finds a seemingly hospitable valley, he is keen to see if he can trade his minstrel skills for food and shelter. Why not? Many other communities have welcomed him.

Not this community. The Red Lord into whose domain Alaric has wandered is a tyrant and torturer, as Alaric soon realizes. Because Alaric is careful to keep his teleportation talent secret, he is able to escape the Red Lord.

Beyond the mountains he finds a forbidding tundra. A deer-herding tribe survives there, but theirs is a difficult life — despite which the herders are considerably more hospitable than the Red Lord. Alaric finds not merely shelter with Simur’s band, but also the affection of Zavia.

The cultures of the far north are very different from the cultures of the south where he grew up. In particular, where the principalities of the south hate and fear witches,” as anyone with unusual gifts is known, the herders revere them. Zavia’s mother Kata is a witch2 and her advice is welcome.

Inconveniently for Zavia, Kata takes a disturbingly close interest in Alaric, particularly once his abilities are revealed. However, Alaric may not have the time needed to navigate this triangle. The herder culture may be very different from that of the south, but it too has its dynastic struggles. Simur’s ambitious son Gilo sees Alaric as a rival. A wise son might seek an alliance or try to undermine his rival. Straightforward Gilo prefers murder.

Plot ensues.


Fix-ups fall on a spectrum from seamless (seams between stories are invisible) to mere collections of linked stories. Like Born to Exile, In the Red Lord’s Reach is of the second sort.

Poor Alaric! As the protagonist of an on-going series about a wandering minstrel, his attempts to settle down can never succeed, no matter how promising the potential home. Something always forces the minstrel to keep moving, even if it’s only his own wanderlust. Or authorial diktat.

I found it interesting that Alaric has internalized the anti-witch views of his native lands. It probably does not help that his family’s history (using their own ability to teleport to carve out their own kingdom) supports the common notion that witches naturally incline towards evil or at least exploitation3.

Perhaps due to the above (but also because every use of his teleportation risked being exposed as a witch, captured and executed), there are many useful applications of his gift that have never occurred to Alaric. It takes friendly outsiders to make suggestions.

Readers used to world-saving epics might find this low-key fantasy an unexpected change of pace. Conflicts are strictly local in impact. Much of the focus is on interpersonal and internal struggles. Yet these stories are quite enjoyable. Not every fantasy needs to have epic stakes to engage readers, as Eisenstein’s skillfully told tales prove.

In the Red Lord’s Reach was the final Alaric volume. There is enough Alaric material for a third volume, as Eisenstein published three more Alaric stories after the ones incorporated into In the Red Lord’s Reach. At the moment, those stories are scattered across:

  • The December 1988 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, later included in an out-of-print collection, Night Lives: Nine Stories of the Dark Fantastic [4],
  • the February 2019 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction,
  • and George R. R. Martin & Gardner Dozois’ [5] Rogues, which is still in print.

Like the entirety of Eisenstein’s non-anthologized work, In the Red Lord’s Reach is out of print.

1: In practice this means that Alaric can travel only to places he can see and places where he has been and remembers.

2: Witch is an umbrella term. Kata is a witch thanks to years of effort and learning. She isn’t particularly impressed by Alaric’s ability to teleport. Anyone can be born with a mutant power; her path to power took hard work.

3: That said, everyone with a kingdom gained it somehow and probably not by asking nicely. Also, Alaric’s noble relatives have been known to do bad things, but they were goal-oriented bad things, as opposed to the Red Lord’s habit of torturing people to death for the laughs.

4: I’ve got this Eisenstein collection slated for a review in June.

5: Who, as established in a previous review, are not Martin Gardner.