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Phyllis Eisenstein

I see from George R R Martin’s blog that Phyllis Eisenstein died last month – from Covid-19 though she had suffered a cerebral hæmorrhage much earlier in the year. Another sad departure for a year too full of them. Not that this year is looking much better at the moment, vaccine apart.

I first read her work in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction way back in the day but it wasn’t till recently that I read her two novels relating the adventures of Alaric the minstrel, Born To Exile and In the Red Lord’s Reach.

I have another of her books on the tbr pile. It will be read with a sense of sorrow.

Phyllis Eisenstein: 26/2/1946 – 7/12/2020. So it goes.

Bluesong by Sydney J van Scyoc

Penguin, 1984, 266 p.

 Bluesong cover

This is a sequel to Darkchild, and is again set on the planet of Brakrath but here Scyoc broadens out her depiction of the societies there. Events are seen through two viewpoint characters, Keva and Danior, but a third appears in the Epilogue which sets up another sequel.

Keva has been brought up in the warmstream among the fisher-people by Oki. But Keva’s dreams are dominated by thoughts of fire. While seeking a poison antidote in Oki’s stash she finds a blue cloth which sings to her when she touches it. She finds Oki has lied to her about her origins and that her memory of a bearded man on a horse is real. She is the daughter of Jhaviir, one of the clones of Birnam Rauth – a Rauthimage – from the earlier book, and of a barohna now dead.

Danior’s mother was also a barohna (Khira from Darksong) and his father was The Boy from that book. Since barohnial inheritance comes through the female line Danior sees no place nor future for himself in the barohnial palace.

Both Keva and Danior set off on their own, Keva to attempt to find her father, and Danior to make his own way. Jhaviir – as the Viir-Nega – has collected together some of the desert people to live in a settlement but they are constantly at war with those who still roam. This pastoral existence and the wanderings through the plains reminded me of Phyllis Eisenstein’s In the Red Lord’s Reach, but perhaps hunter-gathering/partly settled societies are all similar.

When the nomads discover that a barohna has come to the settlement it provokes them to form an alliance to attack. Despite her reluctance Keva is forced to use her barohnial powers as mediated by her sunstone to defeat them.

The vast majority of this novel deals with the situation of the desert clans. The background to Scyoc’s trilogy remains resolutely that – background – for the most part. Little of the Rauthimage inheritance both Keva and Danior embody is referred to – except for the glimpse of Birnam Rauth, as tramsitted via the white cloth Jhaviir possesses, experienced by Danior as he touches it. This presages the third book in the trilogy.

Bluesong can be read on its own. No knowledge of the previous book is necessary and it reads as not merely the second part of a series but works by itself as a novel.

Pedant’s corner:- lightening (lightning.) “‘She’d dead.’” (She’s.) “It made her feel no better than he drew back at her tone” (that he drew back,) dispell (dispel,) vaccum (vacuum,) “instead the Nathri-Varnitz” (instead of the Nathri-Varnitz,) “three pair of eyes” (pairs,) a missing full stop at one paragraph’s end, an end quote mark at a paragraph break where the next continued the same speaker’s dialogue. “The Viir-Nega brows rose” (Viir-Nega’s brows,) “for constance” (constancy,) insured (ensured,) he ask uncertainly (asked,) “she needed to the think now” (no ‘the’ needed.)

In the Red Lord’s Reach by Phyllis Eisenstein

Grafton, 1993, 286 p.

 In the Red Lord’s Reach  cover

These are the continuing adventures of Alaric the minstrel, hero of Born to Exile, who has the ability to transport himself instantaneously from one place to another, a trait he has to keep secret for fear of being called a witch. In his wanderings he comes to the domain of the Red Lord where he offers his musical services in return for the usual bed and board. Very soon he realises that there is something disturbing at the heart of the Red Lord’s reign. The hold the Lord has over the valley is as a reward for protection against bandits – of whom Alaric has seen no sign – and screams come from the Lord’s tower every night. When Alaric says it is time for him to leave he is taken to the tower where he finds the Lord tortures and eventually kills his victims, a fate now intended for Alaric.

He escapes (of course, how could a self-teleporter not?) and makes his way to the north lands where he falls in with the deer-herding (and riding) nomads who live there. The chief, Simir, himself a fugitive from the Red Lord, takes to him, as does Xavia the daughter of the nomads’ witch, Kata. Kata’s potions and prognostications are a solace for the nomads – she yearly provides them all with the Elixir of Life and imbues the men with the talent to hunt. Here being a witch is not seen as devilry, though Alaric does not accept that for a while. His relationship with Xavia is not taken well by Simir’s sons and leads to a confrontation. The sons are exiled and Alaric finds himself desired as a successor by both Simir and Kata.

The bad winter which follows leaves the nomads with few deer, no prospects for the next year and little option but what all along the reader knew was coming; to try to overthrow the Red Lord.

It’s decently enough written and engaging (not to mention remarkably free of errata) but an attempted rationale for Alaric’s powers as tapping into what seem to be magnetic field lines, described when Kata leads an expedition north to harvest the strange flowers which grow only there at midsummer and provide the ingredients for the Elixir of Life, sits somewhat oddly with the otherwise purely fantastical premise.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “‘Pilgrim’s bound where?’” (Pilgrims.)

Born to Exile by Phyllis Eisenstein

Grafton, 1992, 219 p.

 Born to Exile cover

These are the adventures of Alaric the minstrel, a foundling discovered on a wooded hillside with a severed hand clutching his leg. Taken in by a childless couple desperate for someone to care for he later is befriended by a minstrel called Dall who recognises his unusual ability – liable to be described by the society they live in as witchcraft. Alaric has the power of self-teleportation – handy for extricating himself from dodgy situations but a dangerous attribute.

In his wanderings after Dall’s death he comes to a castle where the local princess takes a fancy to him. Their liaison uncovered he has to flee precipitately but cannot forget her. Eventually he meets a former midwife with a strange tale to tell. She has only one hand. Cut off when a child she had just delivered disappeared along with it and banned from her home kingdom for failing to take proper care of her charge. Through her he comes to his ancestral home and finds a family he didn’t know he had (all of whom have his ability – but it must be kept secret.)

Born to Exile is a pleasant enough read, Alaric is a reasonably engaging protagonist – with a conscience (though the sexual politics of his world are typical of fantasy novels of this vintage) – and the ending provides scope for a sequel.

Pedant’s corner:- One entry. One only. Remarkable. “He bent her back till they lay prone on the bed” (face down? I think not; supine on the bed perhaps.)


Back when I was young I used to have an order for Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly.

Buchan had been a football player in the 1910s and 1920s – most notably with Sunderland. His career was interrupted of course by the Great War (in which he served and won the Military Medal.)

His eponymous monthly magazine (started in 1951) was the first dedicated to football.

One article I strongly remember (though I forget most of the details) was about the longest FA Cup tie ever played, which went to several replays before finally being resolved.

However the magazine stopped publishing in 1974. When my newsagent pointed this out to me I told him (being well into SF by that time) that I had in any case decided to transfer my order to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (aka to us aficionados as F&SF.)

I forget how many years I kept the order – probably till around the time I got married. I still have all those issues in a cupboard somewhere, though, despite several house moves since.

Though I was never much into the fantasy side of F&SF I did remember with some fondness stories written by Phyllis Eisenstein about one Alaric the minstrel who had been born with the ability to teleport merely by thinking. As a bit of nostalgia I have bought and am now reading a novel featuring Alaric (Born to Exile – see my sidebar for the moment.) I wonder how it will stand up.

If it does there’s a sequel titled In the Red Lord’s Reach which I may then purchase.

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