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That's One Impressive Pair Of Ironies

Review Round-up: The Collegium Chronicles and Unfaithful Wives

Two books/series with very little in common. Except, I suppose, I found them both kind of dissatisfying - Mercedes Lackey's Collegium Chronicles and Orrie Hitt's Unfaithful Wives.

RedoubtThe Collegium Chronicles (2008 - 2013) are five of the (counts rapidly) bajillion Valdemar novels by Mercedes Lackey. This particular sequence follows the young Mags as he's rescued from working as a mine slave and makes the startling transition to student at a magical university. His efforts to fit in, make friends, and adapt to his comfy new existence are occasionally interrupted by assassins.

If I sat down at wrote a list of 'stuff that bugged me in fantasy novels', the Collegium Chronicles would tick a dozen different items - from annoying dialects to poverty porn to magical horses to meandering descriptions of meaningless trivia (seriously, one of the books features a page-long list of pie fillings) to frequent, implausible deus ex machina to heavy-handed infodumping. Hell, there's even a shameless Quidditch knockoff.

And, good lord, the Chosen One-ness. Mags is lifted from obscurity because he's born magical and special - if he weren't, his plight (like those of his dozens of peers in the mines) would have gone completely unnoticed. As he grows, we learn that he's amazingly special in so many, many unique ways. Even at a magical university packed with magical snowflakes, he's the snowflakiest of all: the best at everything he does, possessed of a uniquely powerful magical talent, and, of course, descended from a mysterious bloodline. 

And yet...

For the early volumes at least, the books are, for lack of a better word: addictive. A lot of it is results from the brutal pathos of the early chapters - Mags' young existence is truly horrible, and his plight is presented so empathetically that the reader can't help but stick by his side. It plucks at the heartstrings to create a ear-worm; even as I resented being played, I couldn't resist turning the pages. The series' addiction to trivial detail is initially rather valuable: we discover all the little joys of life (from sausages to featherbeds) through Mags' eyes. Sentimental, but effective. Similarly, this gives us an unusual perspective on the 'epic fantasy' elements. Mags is surrounded by wizards and talking horses, but, in a sense, they're less important to him than a bowl of hot soup. It makes him oddly believable, and thoroughly empathetic. 

As the books go on, however, Mags grows more comfortable with... comfort... and the books become increasingly meandering and tangential. The momentum gained from Mags' childhood fades, and there's no consistently propulsive plot in place to keep the pages turning. The series presents a few moments of compelling adventure - for example, when Mags is abruptly returned to 'nothingness' again in the fourth book, or works undercover in the third. But, more and more, Mags' struggles become less compelling as he becomes acclimated to having, well, everything

The final book, for example, spends a great deal of time delineating Mags' packing arrangements, debates over inns versus camp sites, and even more time about his fumbling sexual frustrations. Whereas the five book 'meta-arc' of Mags mysteeeeerious origins is resolved in a headlong, infodumping rush, and with very little satisfaction. If only some fraction of the time spent fretting about sleeping arrangements had been reapportioned to plot... But with this lop-sided economy of attention in place, it feels that, of all things, the dramatic climax of the book is Mags losing his virginity.... and thwarting a legion of magical assassins is merely an afterthought. Which, with hindsight, I suppose this might be true.

Conceptually, I'm actually kind of on board with this. The Collegium Chronicles are - for lack of a better term - 'epic fantasy kitchen sink fiction' - more about the protagonist's struggles with the everyday than the exceptional. Unfortunately, it doesn't commit enough to either genre - Mags is too much of a Chosen One to really feel like an accessible everyman. And, conversely, the plot is side-lined far too often for this to be an adventure. Where the Chronicles are strongest is when the everyday manages to feel exceptional: when Mags has to struggle to survive, the reading is compelling. But watching the magically/socially/predestinated-to-be-privileged continue to succeed is not. The problem with cheering for the Chosen One is that they're already Chosen - and when everything is going their way, they make a lousy underdog. In Mags' case, the reader's sympathy is too quickly squandered, and no other reason to continue is offered in its place.

Unfaithful WivesOrrie Hitt's Unfaithful Wives (1956) is a sordid little noir, notable largely for its interesting structure. We begin with Fred, a travelling salesman, crawling out of bed with Sandra. Fred hates himself for this one-night affair, and, feeling unclean, he doesn't complete his journey home - instead he heads out to visit an old friend and think about what he's done.

While Fred contemplates an appropriate penance, we skip to Rita - his wife, who is also having an affair, but a longer-term one. She's sleeping with Norman, a musician, who is using Rita for her (Fred's) money, while conducting a relationship of his own... Meanwhile, Sandra is also married, although her husband, a truck driver, is desperate to be rid of her - but can't quite shake her off.

Unfaithful Wives skips from perspective to perspective, a tension-building tactic that's sadly underused. Probably because it takes a great deal of writing talent to bring characters to life in such a short space (while also managing to create a coherent narrative - and conflict - out of a series of daisy-chained events). John D MacDonald's The Beach Girls and the much-lauded The End of the Night are two of my favourite examples of the style.

Hitt certainly makes a game attempt at it, but Unfaithful Wives isn't quite up to the challenge - most of the characters are one-dimensional and the plot is almost entirely absent. The book relies too much on the narrative trickiness alone to keep things moving. Well, that and pure sleaziness. It becomes very, very clear that there are few 'good guys' here. Fred, at least, starts as genuinely repentant, so much so that he even declines a dalliance with a beautiful lounge singer. This is, we learn, the height of self-flagellation. But then Fred shifts from penitent to pensive, realising that maybe his marriage isn't worth saving. Once that revelation clicks in, he's off again - pursuing one of the book's few genuinely 'good' people, his old friend's widow.

That said, Fred benefits from being at least slightly nuanced, possibly because he actually has a bit of agency. The resolution to his story arc makes for one of the book's few genuinely surprises - he makes the choice that is arguably right for him, as opposed to conventionally (and traditional-to-literature) Right. Norman also benefits from having a certain degree of depth, and he ends the book as one of the few potentially redeemed characters - thanks in no small part to the love of another 'good' woman. Rita and Sandra, however, are wholly despicable, and suffer wildly grotesque punishments for their 'misdeeds'. The 'nice girls' are equally one-dimensional and uninteresting, flitting around in the background like carnival prizes.

The plot, as noted above, is insubstantial - there's a murder and a 'false-accusation'/'man on the run' thread that runs through it. Largely, Unfaithful Wives is a series of character portraits and particularly Grimm conclusions to the individual story arcs. It is interesting - to some limited extent - as a snapshot of 1950s morality. The book is surprisingly daring in its overt discussion of sexual politics, and perhaps even more daring in that sex itself is presented as neither good nor bad. The 'good' people and the 'bad' people engage just as frequently and just as willingly, it is how they use sex that separates them. Still, despite the progressive (?) philosophy - or at least a general willingness to open the conversation - this is a pretty dull book, certainly more interesting for what it tries to do than what it actually accomplishes on the page.