The March North, by Graydon Saunders

This book is an interesting experiment – egalitarian fantasy.

If I had to name something it reminded me of, I’d point at Glen Cook’s Black Company novels. There are similar elements – in “The March North”, ordinary soldiers have to interact and work with extremely powerful sorcerers. But there are also some very big differences.

What it’s about

The world of The March North is a rather troubled place. Its history is incredibly long – apparently the written word dates back perhaps a quarter of a million years. Basically everywhere and everyone has been touched by magic – the whole setting is marinating in it. And sadly, the Power and the Talent have not really been positive things in civilisation’s affairs.

In fact it’s a bad enough situation that people have even worked out a typical statistical timescale for your average Dark Lord’s reign of terror. (200-300 years between manifestation to eventual overthrow is apparently the usual average career-length.)

Yup – there’s so much of this stuff going on that people do academic studies on it…
You might note that we’re going off of the high fantasy rails here. That, in a way, is the whole point. The Commonweal is a relatively recent society, dating back about five centuries. And it represents something of a departure from existing political practice. It’s a democracy with an elected parliament, legal guarantees for personal liberty and a multiracial population. The Commonweal only exists at all because half a millennium ago, a coalition of powerful sorcerers apparently got utterly fed up with the state of internecine warfare that surrounded them. They undertook various measures to prevent any would-be Dark Lord from being able to assume control and, astonishingly, to some extent the system actually appears to be working.

The novel is from the point of view of the Captain, who is the non-human commander of a unit in the Commonweal’s army. They’ve been assigned to the Creeks province. Initially this seems like a routine thing – until no less than three of the Commonweal’s most powerful sorcerers are sent to join them. It quickly becomes apparent that the Creeks are basically Ground Zero for an invasion attempt by the neighbouring Archonate of Reems. Apparently the Archons have made some very bad decisions recently and their not-so-petty despotism finds itself existentially-imperilled – hence a desire to expand into the Commonweal’s lands.

It’s up to the soldiers of the Line and their sorcerous allies to put a stop to this mess before it gets any further out of hand. Needless to say, it will not be easy.

What I liked

This is a very hard novel to describe. The prose is written in a very stripped-back and barebones style, so you do need to be paying attention or key details get lost. Still, that sense of austerity is part of what makes the narrative work. Given their backgrounds and occupation, the characters probably would focus closely on the facts and hold back on unnecessary elaborations.

The details of Commonweal Line military life are complex and lucid, and entirely compelling. The fighting is presented unromantically – no-one takes any unhealthy pleasure in what they’re doing, and no-one tries to glorify it either. Just as equally, the Commonweal troops also accept the basic necessity of the war they find themselves fighting, because they all know what the only realistic alternative is – and it’s what everyone calls “the Bad Old Days” from before the Shape of Peace was imposed on top of all local would-be Saurons.

The magic in this world is omnipresent, evocative and creepy. It’s also oddly scientific – the people of the Commonweal apparently know what photosynthesis is and they have the atomic theory of matter. They also apparently use the metric system for weights and measures – quantities are in kilograms and distances are in kilometres. The feel can be surprisingly modern sometimes.

It’s also outright stated that magic isn’t native to the world – rather, Halt (IIRC) speculates that it was deliberately bred into people at some point in the past, for reasons that were probably deeply questionable.

Another interesting aspect of the writing is that I didn’t develop any strong sense of any character’s gender. You hear a lot about genderless writing, so it’s quite interesting to actually see it. I really couldn’t tell you whether the Captain was a boy-graul or a girl-graul – and honestly, it doesn’t matter.

What I found problematic

I would have liked more description of the world beyond the Commonweal. Apparently Reems literally has a land border with the Creeks – so why do the Commonweal seem to know so little about it?

Also, I felt parts of the histories were a bit vague. I think I’ve pieced together what we get told of the story of how the Commonweal was founded – but what was the role of people like Halt and Rust? Apparently they at least tacitly accepted the strictures of the Shape of Peace, but we don’t really get a clear sense as to why exactly.

Lastly, there was some ominous talk here and there about “the paingyre”, which is apparently a sort of Mordor/Cacotopic Stain along one of the Commonweal’s other borders, from which armies of horrors are continually pouring out. And it’s apparently putting the Commonweal under some significant pressure – but we don’t really get a clear explanation as to what exactly it is or what it’s doing.

Summary

Read this book if you’re interested in non-stereotypical fantasy. Read this book if you enjoyed the Black Company novels. Also, this one is worth a look if you’re interested in how functional magic might actually be integrated into military tactics and strategy.

However, if you like more expansive descriptions and deeper background details, then that lack may prove a niggle.

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