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Volume 30, Number 4, Summer, 2012

Banner of the Damned

By Sherwood Smith

DAW Books, 2012
Reviewed by William H. Stoddard

Banner of the Damned follows up Sherwood Smith’s fantasy tetralogy The History of Sartorias-deles. Its events take place four centuries later, at a time when the heroes of the tetralogy are half-legendary; in fact, an important element in the plot is the historical research needed to learn some parts of the truth about them. Institutions and customs have changed, and have done so to different degrees in different cultures. Clashes of cultural assumptions and values are another major strand of the plot.

The viewpoint character of this novel—written in first person, unlike the earlier tetralogy—is Emras, a royal scribe: That is, in part, a historian, a trained observer, a private secretary, a translator, and an archivist. The novel starts out with the three rules to which scribes are sworn: do not interfere; keep the Peace; tell the truth as you see it. Smith is not a libertarian, but this list has a rather libertarian flavor, which made me curious to see how she dealt with such themes—and, in point of fact, I found a number of ideas that will give libertarian readers a sense of recognition. It also defines a role for Emras in the story—that perhaps of a Greek chorus, able to comment but not intervene; perhaps of a John Watson, a trusted confidant of the hero and a reliable narrator but not a primary actor. But, in fact, Emras is the protagonist of this story, and she is herself profoundly changed by it, rather than being a catalyst that emerges unchanged. And the focus of the story is precisely on her conflict over how to interpret the three rules, and how far she can depart from them without betraying them, and on her temptation to go too far, to use prohibited means for what she thinks are good ends.

Emras’s native culture, and that of many other characters, is Colend, a kingdom founded on diplomatic negotiations and the arts of peace, to the point where they have almost forgotten how to do battle; their relations with other kingdoms are founded on offering them trade relations and other benefits that are too valuable to forgo—certainly an attractive idea for libertarians, though being able to survive without knowing how to fight will strike many of us as fantasy indeed! Descriptions of Colend’s culture often recall France under the ancien régime, and occasionally Heian Japan, in the era of Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonagon, not least in the cultural predominance of women. Smith shows several elite women and contrasts their different ways of using their status and privileges; particularly important are Princess Lasva, who in a sense is the heroine of the history that Emras is recounting (she is not her own heroine!), and Duchess Carola, one of the most memorably bitchy characters I’ve encountered in fiction, though her portrayal gains complexity from a well done “the man who learned better” subplot midway through the novel.

Colend’s polar opposite is Marloven Hesea, a society that still lives by warrior values and male dominance—among other things, they have not accepted the prohibition on using missile weapons that Colend and many other societies share—though their culture does have a recognized role for women as warriors. An early scene has a mixed party of Marlovens, led by Prince Ivandred, one of the other main characters of the story, and civilized people attacked by a band of highwaymen who take advantage of civilized avoidance of weapons and combat; the civilized people are almost more horrified by their companions’ firing arrows and, later, collecting scalps from the slain than they are by the prospect of being robbed.

Prince Ivandred later becomes involved in an attempt to kidnap Princess Lasva, which brings them together as a couple and leads to her returning to his country, taking Emras and a small group of servants. This leads to Lasva’s effort to introduce the arts of peace into her new culture, and in time to her discovery, and Emras’s, of an older peaceful tradition, maintained by Marloven women, and now fallen into disuse. Smith’s portrayal of this older culture reminds me of Jane Jacobs’s distinction between trader and guardian moralities in Systems of Survival, and recalls scenes in the tetralogy that show the military role of women earlier in history, as a trained defensive force. In one late scene, Emras is startled to discover that the dancelike exercise routine she and Lasva have practiced is in fact a series of combat moves, preserved in Colend as a form of art after its original function was no longer remembered—suggesting an older kinship between the two cultures from which both have diverged.

But Emras is also involved in a different research program: The study of magic, guided by ancient manuscripts, by close investigation of the magical “technology” that keeps her world going, and by a mysterious teacher, the Herskalt. Magic is traditionally limited to peaceful uses; but Emras finds her growing mastery of it making her a military resource to Ivandred, both by using magic to aid in battle indirectly, and by teaching him spells that he can turn to destructive uses that she never anticipated. Emras’s study of magic results in her violating the rule of noninterference, sometimes without even knowing it. Much of the story turns on her discovery of the consequences of interference, and of how she has been changed by the temptation to interfere. And the story as a whole is framed as Emras’s own testimony in her trial by the scribes for violation of their rules.

Banner of the Damned is not as purely an epic or romance as many works of fantasy. It’s also a novel, offering the classic payoffs of novels: on one hand, complex character interactions and relationships, such as the three men who fall in love with Lasva, and Carola’s attempt to take one of them away from her; on the other, the sense of a textured, complex society undergoing historical change. But this fictional web is woven on the frame of an elaborate, and not fully explained, set of magical assumptions. On one hand, the magic avoids many of the uglier aspects of real historical societies: magical spells provide sanitation, cleaning clothing and possessions and even teleporting away human excreta; other magical spells heal many injuries; sexual violence is thought of as a dark legend of most distant past, no longer possible, and prostitution is an honorable trade with no more element of exploitation than any other. On the other hand, though, it enables dramatic feats and terrifying violence. In fact, though it’s not presented as “technology” in the style of Heinlein’s “Magic, Inc.” or its successors, it plays much the same role that technology does in our society, without the comprehensive Enlightenment rationalism that accompanied its rise, and that, in the eyes of writers from Max Weber to J.R.R. Tolkien, gave us a disenchanted world. Smith’s universe is almost anti-Tolkienian, with magic that is not fading away into modernity, but flourishing and giving rise to an alternate and more colorful “modernity.”

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