So I reviewed this book before, in November of 2019. It’s not a very good review, and it’s also not a very well-written review. One excuse for this is that slaving in the tiger pits is hard work and not conducive to metaphysical contemplativity or resultant expression. The other reason why I liked but didn’t understand it at the time is that I hadn’t consciously or subconsciously figured out the twist–or was just skimming too hard to catch it–and that’s kind of critical to understanding the actual book and its place in the series, which, after all is called the Childe Cycle….not the “Dorsai series.”
Needless to say, on reading it again I was impressed by how well it’s done. Yes, it is low on scifi blasting action. But it’s not a scifi pulp-action. It’s more of a futuristic thriller, with [para]psychological overtones that become more prevalent as the plot unfolds. (Also, needless but unfortunate to say, almost anything improves in contrast to The Final Encyclopedia.)
Necromancer was published 1962, the second book of the Cycle. It’s unquestionably the work of a younger author: it’s intense, bold, quick in thought and action, and immensely self-assured without being self-indulgent.–rather like it’s protagonist, Paul Formain. And to discuss said protagonist. I’ve opined before how most authors have character types which they resort to time after time, how better authors are aware of this tendency, and how the best authors make use of it. Dickson’s Hero Type is a loner, a man separate from humanity, who observes it with varying degrees of interest, affection, and masterful dominance. Dickson being an old grandmaster, he twists and plays with this character type, giving its tendencies varying emphasis: on the mastery, on the loneliness, on the affection or disaffection for other humans–and sometimes subverting it wholesale, by allowing the protagonist to be completely and utterly wrong about things. (They also tend to be extremely tall, muscular, and strangely attractive to women, but never mind that.) But it’s a character type which, in competent–and confident–hands, is immensely satisfying to follow. Readers of the Childe Cycle will note essential similarities between Dorsai!‘s Donal Graeme, Necromancer‘s Paul Formain, and others along the way. But, of course, that’s the point…
I was also quite impressed with the plot structure, which unfolds the personalities involved in the conflict, then the conflict itself, and then the solution to that conflict, in a manner which allows each side time to develop and explain its side and stance, and then resolves it all without diminishing any of them. (The ending is kind of brilliant, because each of the parties involved in the confrontation walk away thinking they’ve won, or at least been allowed to walk away and continue their path to inevitable victory.) Often–almost always, in fact–authors can only resolve a confrontation between two ideologically-motivated opposing forces by writing one as obviously evil, and then making that side inexplicably stupid when the critical moment comes, even if it’s been monolithically powerful before. Here, both sides of the conflict are allowed to draw out and present their case. Both (/all) sides have their good points and bad ones, which are shown and not told by the simple yet brilliant method of embodying them in the personalities which showcase each side. The powers of both sides are presented, showing that they are in their own ways, evenly matched in their total opposition. –and then the audience is reminded that anything that perfectly balanced in one direction can be upset by a force from a different direction.
And, critically, it does all this in less than 200 pages. There’s no padding, no self-indulgent, meandering theses. Every scene is well-crafted, to the point, and solid.
Okay, so what is the book about? So young mining engineer Paul Formain loses his arm in an accident, which by itself doesn’t seem to be all that strange. Neither, in isolation, does the fact that, five years before, Paul survived a boating accident which should surely have killed him–an accident from which he hazily remembers being rescued by a strange figure in a black cloak and pointy hat. Somewhat strange is the fact that Paul’s body completely rejects transplant attempts to graft on a new, replacement arm. Maybe strange is the way his remaining arm grows freakishly stronger over time. Definitely strange is his utter rejection of his psychiatrists’ diagnosis of a subconscious urge to self-destruction; but, following this, entirely natural for him to conclude that modern science is of no use in this matter, and that hope lies with the agents of Alternate Science, the self-proclaimed wizards, warlocks, and necromancers of the Chantry Guild…
The Chantry Guild boldly declares that it’s purpose is to destroy: to smash down the institution and the attitudes which have brought the human race to a well-fed, well-groomed, near-mindless, complaisant sickness…except that, as events unfold, what they really want to do is protect themselves. And, since rational human beings (even rational beings who believe in Alternate Laws and follow a leader who wears a pointy hat and a long cape) don’t have to protect themselves in the absence of an enemy, it follows that there is an enemy. And that this enemy is not simply an institutional attitude, but has actual, physical form–an enemy which even modern-day sorcerers, with the ability to warp time, perception, and matter itself, are hard-pressed to match, let alone overcome.
Oh, and the fate of the human race itself is at stake.
But that’s the ultimate point of the Childe Cycle….
Other stuff: Formain returning to the final confrontation in a cryogenically-frozen body which hasn’t quite finished thawing out is still a striking scene. So is the reveal of the final pages, which make it clear what’s going on without, and I cannot stress this enough, belaboring the point.
Rated: I still don’t get what the deal is with the “apple comfort” song, though.
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