Guns, Stock, and Tael: Sword of the Bright Lady by M.C. Planck

23 Oct

Jared Diamond’s seminal work, Guns, Germs and Steel, posited that those three advantages are what allowed the Europeans to come out on top of the 15th century world and go on to dominate the globe in the next several centuries. European diseases decimated the New World, and European steel and guns gave them sway over Africa, Asia and the Americas. The reasons why Europe had those advantages and were able to leverage them is the heart of that book.

The idea of introducing gunpowder to worlds that don’t have it is one that crops up now and again in genre. Gunpowder is an invention that is a game changer, and yet, it is not one that requires a lot of technology to manage. It’s really a historical accident that it was invented in China and only when it came to Europe became seriously used for warfare. With the technology and materials available to them, there is nothing that wouldn’t allow gunpowder to be used as far back as the Roman Empire or even earlier. The roleplaying game Fvlminata provides a RPG world where gunpowder was invented by Rome in the first century AD. The Island in the Sea of Time series by S.M. Stirling has the time-stranded Nantucketers introduce gunpowder to the late Bronze Age, with civilizations everywhere wanting a piece of that action — and being able to use it, however primitively.sword-of-the-bright-lady-mc-planck

Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is perhaps the ur-text of a modern man sent to a primitive society, rising in rank and power, using his knowledge to cow the locals, and introducing all sorts of modern inventions, especially firearms. Predicting an eclipse, for example, manages to save his life. A satire of the romantic ideal of chivalry, Twain’s protagonist Hank winds up using proto-WWI tactics on charging knights, to devastating effect. The social satire and the very strong themes against war, superstition and ignorance resonate with me to this day.

L Sprague De Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall introduces us to Martin Padway. Martin is a scholar of 6th century Rome, and by luck, that is when he falls to in time. His knowledge of history proves as funny and fraught as his technical know-how, and his very geek-like view of the world to the point of naivete is extremely funny. “Has Queen Amalasuntha been assassinated yet?” belies a greater knowledge of history than social skills. Padway does try to introduce gunpowder, but ultimately fails. His other inventions, society shaking and intricate foreknowledge of history definitely work toward Martin’s goal of stopping the Dark Ages in their tracks. It’s a book that reinforced my interest in Roman and Byzantine history, in the bargain.

Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen by H. Beam Piper gives us the Competent Hero type. Pennsylvania state trooper Calvin Morrison is accidentally transported to a very alternate timeline, where a bunch of feudal kingdoms bicker and war with each other on the east coast of North America. The church of Styphon, once a minor healing God, has accidentally discovered and managed to monopolize the secret of making gunpowder, and so it has gone into the munitions business. They sell gunpowder and primitive firearms and ruthlessly keep their monopoly, keeping all of the political powers fighting with each other. Calvin decides that monopolies are bad (especially to the little kingdom that he has found himself in, complete with a kick-ass princess he has fallen for) and breaks the monopoly by revealing the secret of gunpowder to all and sundry, improving the quality of firearms for everyone. Styphon House, as one might expect, does not take this lying down. Lord Kalvan is a hell of a lot of fun.

And so we come to Sword of the Bright Lady by M.C. Planck. Christopher Sinclair takes a walk in the Arizona desert, and stumbles into a snowstorm on another world. A series of events conspire to put Christopher not only in the hands of a church, but also into pledging himself to a God and taking vows as a priest of War. Christopher’s goal is singular and clear:  return to Earth and his wife. With a draft and military campaign upcoming, and a magic system based on gaining tangible rank by killing others, Christopher’s plan is to survive the military campaign, thrive by introducing gunpowder to this fantasy world, and turn a bunch of peasant conscripts into a unit of gunmen. Getting to that point is going to require a bunch of additional changes to society, changes that are not at all welcome in many quarters.

Planck’s world, upon reflection and study, feels very much like the parameters are inorganically set. This is particularly and strikingly seen in tael, the magical currency and signifying source of all rank in this world. Larger and larger amounts of tael, in exact and known quantities, provide higher and higher noble ranks (and other benefits as well — protection against lesser foes, more magic, et cetera).  If one is killed in a battle or a duel, and subsequently raised from the dead, this ordeal causes the person to lose exactly one rank of tael. What this all feels like, to an old roleplaying hand like me, is an old school Dungeons and Dragons experience chart. You gain rank by getting experience, but only get accrued benefits at particular experience levels (the amount needed rising rapidly as you go up the ladder). Getting struck by something like a wight or vampire causes you to lose a level, with only expensive means to restore that level (or just the slow re-accumulation of levels).

And within this roleplaying game world, Christopher’s story is an odd Marty Stu. Getting lucky and getting into the church and the service of a God of War is the setup (as unlikely as this might have been). To go on to introduce the idea of selling stock in a venture and all on his lonesome making the idea stick and work was rather startling. All of Sinclair’s ventures work, even as they sometimes provide counter-reactions (including the one that leads to a cliffhanger at the end of the book). It all feels too much like artifice than a real world. I never really felt the world of Prime to be real. And while competence porn heroes can be fun to follow and watch do their thing, Sinclair never really grew on me as a character. I’d much rather spend time with Calvin or Martin than Christopher.

I think the setup of the novel is partially at fault here. Christopher Sinclair’s single goal is to get out of Prime. He wants to get back to Earth, his wife, period. The gunpowder, the stock sale, the arming of the local levy are only means to that end. There was nothing in the book that caused me to throw the it against the wall, but the book missed a lot of opportunities — too many in my view. Although the ending of the book suggests that Sinclair’s goals are changed by the end of this volume (the first in a series), spending four hundred not-always-enthralling pages to get there is a pretty high cost. With a rewrite, this book could have been a far more interesting launch into where I *think* Planck is going — into the Great Game novels of Dave Duncan. As it stands, I do not recommend readers make the investment at this point in time.

Sword of the Bright Lady is a mildly interesting addition to the subgenre, but only a patch on the aforementioned works in terms of quality and interest.



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