EMPIRE OF THE EAST by Fred Saberhagen
by Larry Niven
I made my brother read Empire of the East. He builds and runs apartment buildings; he doesn’t read much science fiction or fantasy. But he loved The Lord of the Rings, and I told him this was better. I think it is, though I’ll admit that it’s a matter of taste.
Fred Saberhagen has a fine grasp of magic. The laws he postulates are strange, but rigorously self-consistent: the least one must demand of fantasy.
He has a fine flair for poetic justice -the invisible third principle of magic.
There were times when my hair stirred at the horror I saw the East bringing upon themselves… as in Watership Down, when Hazel summoned the dog.
But as a writer, I most admire Saberhagen’s imagery. Consider his description of the Dark Lord, Zapranoth:
“The earth seemed to sink down beneath his feet, as stretched cloth would yield to the weight of a walking man.”
And of the Beast-Lord Draffut, impregnated with elemental life:
It was as if he walked in snow or gravel, instead of solid stone; for at his touch, rock melted, not with heat but as if quickening briefly into crawling life, to quiet again when he had passed.
Images vivid and simple, easy to see, and clearly impossible; images that stick in the mind. My mind has watched the battle between Zapranoth and Lord Draffut, while toy armies of men stopped their own battle to watch, and I won’t forget any of it.
Prologue by Roger Zelazny
Fred Saberhagen does not look like the father of the berserkers, Count Dracula’s amanuensis or an authority on Inca tortures. These items do occasionally come to mind when his name is mentioned, however, because they are the sorts of things which fix themselves readily in memory. So, I wish to counter any image of a latter-day H. P. Lovecraft by remarking, for openers, that Fred is a genial, witty, well-informed individual, with a wonderful wife named Joan, who is a mathematician, and the three best-behaved children I’ve ever met: Jill, Eric and Tom. He likes good food and drink and conversation. His working habits seem superior to my own, and his facility with scholarly matters may even pre-date his one-time employment as a writer for The Encyclopaedia Britannica.
I liked Fred’s writing before I ever met him, and now that we are almost neighbors, I am pleased to know him. I am just returned from a trip, and I finished reading his novel The Mask of the Sun on the airplane. It made me feel that he could do no wrong. It has one of the most suspenseful openings I have encountered in a long while, leading steadily and carefully into a truly exotic setting and story-situation. His management of the paradoxes it involves is an exercise in precision and symmetry. (I might as well add “colorful imagery and characterization,” and for that matter “scholarship which does not impede but enhances.”) And having recently read his The Holmes-Dracula File, I was still fresh on it for purposes of contrast and comparison. There, I was impressed by the apparent ease with which the chapters (alternately narrated by the count himself and by John Watson, M.D.) were recorded in appropriately individual styles, by the authentic feeling of his Victorian London and by the sinuosities of the plot. It was very different from The Mask of the Sun, but was written with equivalent skill, care and attention to detail.
All of which, upon reflection, is a way of saying that he is a versatile writer. But there is more to Fred’s stuff than mere technique. Sit down and read ten pages of anything he has written, and you begin to see that he has given it a lot of thought. It hangs together. (I’m tired of the word “organic” in reference to literature. It makes me think of a book with fungus growing on it. Fred’s books lack fungus but are of a whole piece – press one anywhere, and the entire story fabric responds uniformly to the tension, seamlessly – because he has passed that way many times and knows exactly why he situated every house, tree, black hole, berserker and idea just where he did.) To see, to feel, to know the world you are assembling in such a consistent and fully extended fashion has always seemed to me the mark of a superior writer. It lies beyond any surface trickery – hooks, gimmicks, stylistic pyrotechnics – and is one of the things that makes the difference between a memorable book and one that provides a few hours’ entertainment and is soon forgotten.
I could simply end on that note and be telling nothing less than the truth – after announcing that here is another one, to enjoy, to remember – and then get out of your way and let you read it. But life is short, good writers are a minority group and opportunities to talk about them are few, unless you are a critic or a reviewer, neither of which hats fit me. And there is another thing about writing and Fred which seems worth saying here. Raymond Chandler once observed that there are plot writers, such as, say, Agatha Christie, who work everything out in advance, and then there are others, such as himself, who do not know everything that is going to occur in a story beforehand, who enjoy leaving leeway for improvisation and discovery as they go along. I’ve written things both ways myself, but I prefer Chandler’s route because there is a certain joy in encountering the unexpected as you work. I’ve compared notes on this with Fred, and he is also of the Chandler school. If this tells you nothing else in terms of the psychology behind some people’s creations, it at least lets you know which writers are probably having the most fun. And this is important. There are days when such a writer curses the free-form muse but the reconciliations are wonderful, and the work seldom seems a mere chore. It is good to know that beyond the place of Fred’s versatility – and even beyond that special metaphysical locale where occurs the careful tightening of all story-strands into total self-consistency – there, in the secret place where he puts things together for the first time, all alone and wondering and working hard, he has this special on-the-spot joy in associating the stuff of life and ideas. For some of this, I believe, does come through to the reader in all good writing that happens in this fashion. I feel it in all of Fred’s stories. If further confirmation of the versatility of Fred Saberhagen were needed, here is EMPIRE OF THE EAST. In this unusual collaboration with his earlier self, he has produced a fine mix of fantasy and science fiction, action and speculation.
BOOK I: THE BROKEN LANDS I. Hear Me, Ekuman II. Rolf III. The Free Folk IV. The Cave V. Desert Storm VI. Technology VII. The Two Stones VIII. Chup IX. Messages X. Fight tor the Oasis XI. I am Ardneh XII. To Ride The Elephant XIII. The Morning Twilight
BOOK II: THE BLACK MOUNTAINS I. Tall Broken Man II. Duel III. Valkyrie IV. Djinn of Technology V. Som’s Hoard VI. Be as I am VII. We Are Facing Zapranoth VIII. Chup’s Pledging IX. Before the Citadel X. Lake of Life XI. Knife of Fire
BOOK III: ARDNEH’S WORLD I. Ominor II. Summonings III. Banditry IV. Distance V. Little Moment of Revenge VI. Ardneh VII. Orcus VIII. They Open Doors, They Take Down Bars IX. Ardneh’s Life X. Beast-War XI. World Without Ardneh
THE BROKEN LANDS
Hear Me, Ekuman
The Satrap Ekuman’s difficulties with his aged prisoner had only begun when he got the fellow down into the dungeon under the Castle and tried to begin a serious interrogation. The problem was not, as you might have thought from a first look at the old man, that the prisoner was too fragile and feeble, liable to die at the first good twinge of pain. Not at all. It was almost incredible, but actually the exact opposite was true. The old man was actually too tough, his powers still protected him. All through the long night he not only defended himself, but kept trying to hit back.
Ekuman’s two wizards, Elslood and Zarf, were adepts as able as any that the Satrap had ever encountered west of the Black Mountains, far too strong for any lone prisoner to overcome, especially here on their own ground. Yet the old man fought – in pride and stubbornness, perhaps, and doubtless with the realization that his fighting could cause powers so enormous to be arrayed against him, could create a tension so great, that his inevitable collapse would bring him sudden and relatively painless death.
The intensity of the silent struggle mounted all through the darkest morning hours, when human powers are known to wane, and others may reach their peak. Ekuman and his wizards could not identify the particular forces of the West that the old man called upon, but certainly they were not trivial. Long before the end, the air within the buried dungeon seemed to Ekuman to be ringing audibly with powers; and his human eyesight misinformed him that the ancient vaults of the stone ceiling had elongated and receded into some mysterious distance. Zarf’s toad-familiar, wont to jump with glee during the interrogation of stubborn prisoners, had taken refuge in a puddle of torchlight near the foot of the ascending stair, for once wanting nothing to do with the dark corners of the chamber. It crouched there solemnly, goggle eyes following its master as he moved about.