Thursday, May 24, 2012

Musings: Short Stories Featuring Lord Darcy

Murder and Magic
I am not sure how I first heard about Randall Garrett's short stories (and one full-length novel) centered on the character Lord Darcy.  I am always on the lookout now for authors that can combine fantasy with mystery, and since reading Madeleine E. Robins' books set in an alternate Regency England, I've really craved more alternate history mystery stories.  The Lord Darcy series is the only other one I've found.

I have an omnibus edition of all the Lord Darcy series, but I have only read the two volumes of short stories, Murder & Magic and Lord Darcy Investigates.  So I'm reviewing those together and saving the novel for later.

Lord Darcy is a detective for Richard, the Duke of Normandy.  In his world, Richard the Lionheart did not die in 1199, but returned to England and France to rule well over his empire, with power passing to his nephew Arthur, not his brother John, when he passed away.  As a result of this, the Angevins have ruled most of the world- including "New England" and "New France" in what we know as the Americas- for about eight centuries, right up to the present day 1960s.  In Lord Darcy's world, there are trains but no cars.  There are healers that work for the church, but no doctors.  There is magic, but no science (though the magic is fascinatingly described in very scientific ways that involve humors and relevance).  There is a middle class, but no electricity.  And the main threat to the Angevin Empire is the Polish kingdom.  As these stories were written in the midst of the Cold War, you can assume that the Polish kingdom is that world's equivalent of our USSR.

Lord Darcy Investigates
I really enjoyed these stories, and that's why I'm saving the novel to read later.  Lord Darcy is a mix of Sherlock Holmes - in terms of deductive reasoning - and James Bond - in terms of suavity and saving the empire from the Poles.  But he is an enigma.  It's hard to really know Lord Darcy; though he is the central character in all of these stories, we never get inside his head to know what he's thinking or how he's feeling.  We get to know some of the side characters, such as Prince Richard, some of the church healers, and Darcy's master magician sidekick (how awesome that Lord Darcy's Watson-like character is an Irish master magician!), Sean O Lochlainn, much better than we get to know Darcy himself.  But that's often the way it is with these detective masterminds- I can't say that I know Sherlock Holmes very well after reading his stories, though I have a pretty good grasp on Watson.

But now that I've described the background of the stories, perhaps I should describe the stories themselves.  They range from locked room murders to an Agatha Christie Murder on the Orient Express style number to several that revolve around ensuring that key information does not get into the wrong hands.  In some ways, it's very difficult to determine whodunnit in these because magic almost always plays a role in either the murder act itself or in the solving of the case.  As is often the way with me, I didn't care nearly so much about solving the mystery as I did about the context of the case.  And in these situations, with an alternate universe at my disposal, the mystery itself took on a minor role in my enjoyment of the stories.

My favorite parts of this book were Sean O Lochlainn's descriptions of just how magic works, how the art is still evolving, and all the mysteries that are still outstanding.  I loved that instead of sending a bullet to a lab to determine which gun it was shot from, Lochlainn did a magical test for "affinity" that concluded that the bullet came from a specific gun.  He also talks about why some forensic tests are much easier to do than others, and quotes all sorts of magical laws and properties to back up his arguments.  Clearly, in this world, magic is the predominant field of learning.  In fact, one story particularly points out the dangers of "black magic," one branch of which is research into something that sounds suspiciously like physics.  It was so, so interesting to read just how differently phenomena can be interpreted.  We interpret things we see in a scientific manner because that is how our civilization evolved.  That's not to say, however, that if things had gone differently, we would not view the world through a different lens.  I appreciated that Lord Darcy's world was just as evolved as our own, but that it had gone confidently down an entirely different path through history.

In some ways, O Lochlainn's descriptions of magic could be viewed as information overload- obviously, no one in his world really needs the play-by-play of what he's doing, whereas readers from our world do need it to understand just how that alternate world operates.  So in some ways, it seems a bit forced for all these descriptions to come out.  For example, in one story, O Lochlainn patiently describes the set-up of the Angevin empire to a couple on a train, and I can't imagine, if the empire had existed for 800 years, that there would be anyone who needed it explained to them in such detail.  But it's interesting for us readers to know, so I didn't mind it at all.  I also just love the richness of world-building done well, with history and arts and magic and religion, so I ate this up.  I can see how it could be very tiring for a different reader, though.

I'm very glad I found out about Randall Garrett's series of mysteries.  While I don't think these are as character-driven as most mystery series I enjoy, I loved the setting so much that I didn't mind nearly as much as I normally would have.  These were absorbing reads and a lot of fun, and I look forward to savoring the full-length novel.

9 comments:

  1. Oh wow, these books DO sound really exciting and unique. I love that magic is way of life in these tales, and that there is precedent to back them up. I also tend to love worldbuilding, so what might annoy other readers would just charm the pants off of me. I need to look into these short stories, and the novel as well. Your review has done them incredible justice. Can you tell I am really excited about these books? Nice job with this review. I must follow up on these books and find out more!

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    1. Thanks, Heather! Yes, the worldbuilding is really interesting. It can become a lot of information dump, but really INTERESTING information dump :-)

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  2. You may have just presented me with a summer reading list! Sounds like just my kind of beach book.

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    1. Yes! Read a short story, down a cocktail, then progress...

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  3. Hm..had the name evolved to Darcy then? Isn't it like D'Arcy or something..oh I am nitpicking

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    1. Well, it's an alternate universe, so who knows what happened to nomenclature!

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  4. Why have I never heard of this?? I love alternative history stories and especially if there's mystery as well. I'm definitely going to check these out. They sound wonderful.

    Btw, have you tried Michael Moorcock's Between the Wars series (begins with Byzantium Endures) and Sophia McDougall's Romanitas series? They're alternative history novels too. I haven't started on Moorcock's book but I really enjoyed Romanitas.

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    1. I had a feeling you'd be interested in this volume! I haven't tried either of the series that you mention, but I am going to look them up on Amazon right now. I really want to read Jo Walton's series on an alternate WWII, so maybe Moorcock's book series would work well in conjunction with that.

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    2. Wow, it looks like the Moorcock book is actually not available in the US. I wonder if publishing houses just were too frightened to pick it up?

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