1978’s The Road to Corlay is the first of three volumes in Richard Cowper’s The White Bird of Kinship science/fantasy series.
A thousand years after the Drowning reduced our current civilization to half-remembered folklore, the people of the Seven Kingdoms live a mediaeval existence under the watchful eye of the church. The year 3000 approaches; it is widely believed that the new millennium1 will usher in a new world order.
So much depends on a musically talented boy from a backwater community, on his way to ecclesiastical school.
Fourteen-year-old Tom has the potential to be a great wandering singer (if his elderly friend Peter has his way) or church official (if Tom’s mother has her way). However, the wizard Morfedd singled out Tom for training because the sorcerer believed that Tom had the potential to be something even greater than either entertainer or clerical functionary. Unfortunately for Tom, Morfedd is correct. Tom’s nigh-supernatural gifts make him the year 3000’s ideal inspirational martyr.
The church has not kept its boot on Europe’s collective neck by creating martyrs who might inspire rebellion. Or at least by letting such martyrdoms be publicized. When Tom is killed (a death that might be accidental or might have been ordained by a higher power), the weapon used points to the secular arm of the church militant. The church does its best to proclaim Tom as a martyr on behalf of the church. It’s a sensible gambit but it fails.
By 3018, the popular folktale about the White Bird of Kinship, combined with Tom’s tragic death, have inspired a new creed, one that believes a better time is soon approaching. Implicit in the dream of a better tomorrow is the suggestion that today is terrible. Since the present era is shaped by the church, that is essentially the same as rebuking the church. In other words, heresy to be suppressed by any means necessary.
The campaign isn’t going well. Spy networks have failed to uncover every Kinsman. Executions carried out on the flimsiest of pretexts do not win the love of the masses … or even their cowed submission.
Devout Brother Francis is assigned the task of discrediting dead Tom. This alone is a fatal mistake, for Francis is too honest to produce the lies about Tom the Church needs. If what he finds leads Francis to become a Kinsman, then become a Kinsman he will.
Compounding the Church’s misstep: a man who should be dead is dragged from the sea. The key to his inexplicable salvation? The mind of a man from an era a thousand years dead.
This novel presents one of the grimmer explanations for religion from a Church official:
“Why do men and women need miracles?” he asked. “Can any of you tell me that?” They shook their heads.
“It is really very simple. If the life they know already is all there is for them to believe in, then most of them would be better off dead.”
I read this book in its 1979 SFBC edition, which I received because I hadn’t sent in the card declining the order2. My copy is in storage, so the version I read is a recent ebook reprint. I am pretty sure the two versions are the same, that 1976’s Piper at the Gates of Dawn was incorporated into the novel by the time I encountered it.
To a small degree I lament the edition I first acquired because, to be kind to my former employer, the SFBC Gary Viskupic cover fails to inspire.
I much prefer the Don Maitz cover.
The Pan cover is disturbing but memoriable.3
Moving on from book covers: on this rereading I noticed this passage (written in or before 1978):
“The Drowning was the direct result of humanity’s corporate failure to see beyond the end of its own nose. By 1985 it was already quite obvious that the global climate had been modified to the point where the polar ice caps were affected.”
Where do SF authors get their crazy ideas?
The map provided with some editions informs the reader of the scale of the flooding:
Such massive flooding may require more water than is contained in the Earth’s ice sheets. From the perspective of 3000 AD, it was a sudden inundation. However, the process took decades. Indeed, the characters in scenes set in 1986 appear to believe the Drowning is merely a temporary inconvenience, that life will no doubt return to normalcy. To repeat myself, where do SF authors get their crazy ideas?
Readers at the time this book was published seem to have liked it (even though it was suspiciously literary). The Road to Corlay was listed for a Locus award and nominated not merely for the British Fantasy Award, and the Nebula, but also the highly coveted Balrog4.
The Road to Corlay is a mixture of elements I treasure5 and elements for which I do not care. In the latter column: the time travel plot seemed intrusive and largely purposeless. Did science fiction and fantasy really need yet another setting in which disaster somehow produces a rerun of mediaeval Europe? At least Davy went to the trouble of providing its inundated New England with a brand-new faith (albeit with the same old flaws).
On the plus side, I enjoyed Cowper’s prose. As well, while some might find the pacing slow and the destination at which the plot eventually arrives disappointing, I enjoyed both the journey and the rejection of a stock triumphant victory at the end. Not every story has to feature standard heroism or the usual easy conclusions.
The Road to Corlay was followed by 1981’s A Dream of Kinship and 1982’s A Tapestry of Time, neither of which I have read. It’s an oversight I should address.
The Road to Corlay is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo). The Road to Corlay is unavailable in a wide variety of formats here (Book Depository).
1: Yes, yes, I see many hands raised, all the people eager to point out that the Fourth Millennium won’t start until 3001. See what a dark age it is? They don’t even know there was no year zero.
2: Old-timers may remember the Science Fiction Book Club and its policy of sending subscribers (and charging subscribers for) books for which they had not sent in cards declining the order. I found it very difficult to return the cards in time, in large part due to the fact that my rural family was mailbox-challenged (that’s another story); it took a trip into town to receive or send mail. Why it’s even possible that this was the sole reason and that my difficulties with executive function had nothing to do with it. Yes, that’s the reason.
3: If I knew a child insufficiently supplied with nightmares, I might give them the Pan Books edition.
4: Re awards: The Road to Corlay lost to John Varley’s Titan, Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Clarke’s The Fountains of Paradise, and McCaffrey’s Dragondrums, respectively. I don’t know whether losing awards to a diverse assortment of books is better or worse than being edged out by the same book over and over.
5: In the world of this novel, civilization’s fall has not ended long-range travel. Not only do the British remember that there was a continent to the west of them, they routinely travel there.