Book Review – A Wizard in Bedlam – Christopher Stasheff

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The cover to the edition I originally read. It’s…hideous.

Christopher Stasheff (who sadly passed away in 2018) usually wrote more light-hearted SF and fantasy that revelled in cunning acronyms, pulpishly flat but vivid romances, and puns which escape being horrible by dint of being, well, kinda funny instead. (“Paying tacks,” “no rest for the wicket,” etc.) A Wizard in Bedlam is grittier and more serious than its sequels; only subsumed hints of romance; and the prophetic doggerel poetry has a solid reason for being included.There’s no mention of the alphabet soup of acronyms, either; and if there were any puns, I totally missed them. Still, there is the same wry narrative voice and witty in-character humor, carefully-described action scenes and plenty of thrilling escapades.

Actually, I’d forgotten how much I’d forgotten about this book–the only impression I still carried was “this one was the serious/good one.” This impression is kind of misleading: they’re all pretty good, this one one is just about .5 degrees higher up on the hard/soft SF thermometer than the rest.

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Slightly better.

Plot: Dirk Dulaine is an agent returned to his home to carry word to the rebel leaders: when they are ready, the promised Towers (ships) shall drop down from the skies to support their brothers’ uprising. He only has two problems–One, who are the rebel leaders? Two: How to know when The Time is, or convince them that it is now?

 

Because, no one will act until DeCade has rungen the bell.–and though it’s hard for Dirk, who left the planet as a child, to understand, every churl of the planet Melange really is genuinely waiting for DeCade, the centuries-dead leader who almost led them to glorious freedom once before. He, with the help of a mysterious Wizard, promised to return someday. How is a matter slightly beyond Dirk’s paygrade.

There’s also the matter of a mysterious giant named Gar, an offworlder and who is also searching for the rebel leaders for reasons of his own, and asking a lot of pointed political questions along the way. He and Dirk fall in together, fight together, and when he’s captured by the mustache-twirlingly spiteful Lord Core, Dirk decides that one good turn deserves another. He and his contacts–which are mostly the beautiful peasant spy maiden, Madelon–can’t directly rescue Gar. They will have to wait until the Games and make a break for it then.

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Solid ’80s art. At least Dirk isn’t doing a leg cling.

Escaping the Games necessitates our heroes take temporary shelter in a Bedlam House–a madhouse. And Dirk finds, slightly too late, something really important about his friend Gar. He’s a telepath…and this was the worst of all possible places for a telepath to be.
A handful of outlaws, outlaw villages, cavalry chases, hidden caves and sacred tombs later…DeCade returns. It’s slightly more complicated than that, but there you have the gist of it.

 

Overall, this is a decent soft-serve SF; the science might be lightweight but is treated seriously, and the points that are expanded upon are well-thought out. Such as:

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It’s like the worst of Baen plus the worst of ’90s Tor got drunk and made an art together.

– Melange was originally settled by a very small, very eccentric colony group. There were the Lords (or, their ancestors), and then there were their servants. Twelve of them, to be exact. And then they cloned them–time after time after time. I remember this plot point giving me the creeps, and it’s still creepy years later with the description of how townspeople had a distinct “blended” phenotype….every town the same.

– The Games isn’t just a source of random cruelty. It’s actually a multi-level control mechanism: it gives the Lords a way to filter the hot-headed and rebellious churls, the ones who aren’t quite smart enough to keep their mouths shut–out of the gene pool; it shows the rest of the churls what happens to those who run their mouths….and it tends to destroy any tendency to liberalism in the young Lordlings who get to face off against a horde of berserk churls bent on smashing a skull or two before they go down.

– What sort of society is a very, very, very homogenous population going to settle on once they have the ability to decide for themselves? And what view are they going to have on of their own cloned race who are even slightly out of sync with the rest of them–say, a group who left the planet in childhood and were educated off-world?

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No. Nope. Nuh-uh.

The main characters–Dirk and Gar/Magnus–play off each other very well. Dirk is almost a classical Campbellian hero: a hypercompetent Agent of Science…given some more depth by the fact that he’s destined to be the sidekick, rather than the hero, his crush on Madelon, his sly sense of humor, and an inability to figure out what exactly the what big guy’s deal is for most of the book. Gar/Magnus slides into the “mysterious and quiet hero” role, and–impressively–does it while someone else is piloting his body.

Hm, what else?

Action: there are some detailed fight scenes that I mostly skipped over completely. The rest of the action is on the “action-adventure” level, with only occasional touches of grime and gore.

And that’s basically what I’ve got.

Rated: For DeCade!

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