Safely You Deliver, by Graydon Saunders
“Safely You Deliver” is the third, and most recently-released, instalment in Graydon Saunders’ Commonweal series.
The world of the Commonweal is ancient, and its history is sodden in magic. The Power, as it’s called, has altered everything, from the cultures and economies of the world to the very people themselves. “Human” is a term whose meaning has become rather loose, encompassing as it now does a range of post-human species. Most of these species were deliberately engineered by various Sauron-wannabes to serve as some variety of forced labour. It’s fair to say that it’s not a happy place…
But that’s not the end of it – the geology and ecology of the world have been warped as well. Hills can be sentient, and farmers live in fear of ‘weeds’ moving into their fields. (‘Weed’ can mean anything from a boringly-old-fashioned anthropophagic Venus fly-trap through to fungal infestations that can consume entire towns and all the way to things whose full effects are magical. Yep, the carnivorous plants have part-magical metabolisms.)
And this is before we even get to the true horrors, such as the swans.
(Spoiler: two swans turn up during “Safely”, and cause much concern for everybody within a dozen miles. Also, whilst bad, the swans aren’t even the worst. Beyond them exist walking crises such as the ‘hell things’ from beyond the Dread River, whose abrupt break-out forced the unwanted divorce between the First and Second Commonweals, by making safe travel between the two regions literally-impossible. This appears to include travel by sorcerous teleportation. Whatever the hell-things are, they’re well-named.)
The Power has not been a positive force in the world of Safely. In fact, what it seems to lend itself to, what it almost seems to have been designed to encourage, is oppression, chaos and endemic magical warfare.
As established in the previous books, the Commonweal is a relatively-recent reaction against this ongoing cycle of misery and violence. An attempt to found a society incorporating a measure of freedom for non-sorcerous people, it has regularly faced serious pressure from its more ‘traditional’ neighbours. Also, whilst life in the Commonweal is vastly better for normal people – avoid the weeds, don’t feed the ducks, and never ever go anywhere near a swan, and you can reasonably-expect to survive to adulthood! – nonetheless, the social order can be harder on those few who are strong in the Power. And of course the Power being what it is, you don’t have a choice whether you have it or not. (There is actually a serious discussion in-universe about whether or not the Power was created as a deliberate-and-conscious exercise in abuse, or whether the abusive aspects are an unintended by-product. Criminal negligence or criminal intent, you decide which is worse!)
Safely You Deliver follows up on the events of the first two books, the invasion from the Archonate of Reems in ‘The March North’ and the establishment of the experimental school for mages in ‘A Succession of Bad Days’. At the start of Safely, Reems is still defeated and the Second Commonweal is still isolated from the First – at least one of these facts is still true by 70% of the way through the book, which is where I’m up to. As for Edgar, Chloris, Dove and Zora, they are continuing their studies and their path toward Independent status. For now, they have the provisional blessings of Parliament and the Shape of Peace. Society is happy to accept their works, even if the same society isn’t entirely sure it accepts them.
Part of the problem, you see, is that the foursomes’ collective endeavours are getting to be just that bit too good. One of the threads Safely picks up, in a subtle way, is the undercurrent of uneasiness that exists between non-sorcerous people and those who have the dubious fortune to be gifted. The Commonweal does try to have a place for both, but one group are definitely subject to greater scrutiny. No-one has forgotten the Bad Old Days – the Commonweal has known barely five centuries of the Peace Established, but the history of the Power is more like a quarter of a million years. At the back of everyone’s mind is the nagging fear that this is a temporary aberration, not the wave of the future, and the collective abilities of these four young sorcerers are both qualitatively and quantitatively unlike anything seen before. How can anyone be certain that they’re not looking at the next Morgoth or Lord Ruler?
SYD focuses heavily on Zora, whilst ‘Succession’ was mainly about Edgar and Dove. Zora has recently adopted a refugee unicorn, Pelorios, who has found his way to the Commonweal after almost dying in the outside world. Commonweal-verse unicorns, it should be noted, are fearsome beasts. They’re a long way from helpless, and regarded with real fear. (The presence of the swans on the lake doesn’t seem to cause Pelorios any particular concern. With the exception of Halt, he’s the one person who doesn’t crap their pants at the idea of swans moving in. Apparently, unicorns think they can handle swans. Yikes.)
Given that they are notoriously fearsome beasts, the presence of a unicorn is a matter of some debate. Pelorios is initially badly-injured and severely unwell – we don’t really know the details of what exactly happened to him, but he was living in the world beyond the Commonweal. It wouldn’t have been good. Zora initially nurses the unicorn back to something approaching health, then gradually befriends him. To an extent, she and Pelorios are in a similar situation. While Zora is rightly proud of her friends and their work, nonetheless she feels slightly uneasy about the team’s collective, and uncertain of her place in it. Like Pelorios, she is at one remove from the society around her.
(It’s worth keeping in mind that Zora is an eye-wateringly-powerful sorceress in her own right, even at the age of twenty-five. That doesn’t stop her having the usual round of existential uncertainties and personal doubts. The Power may bring many things, but it doesn’t necessarily provide self-assurance.)
Initially, things proceed in their usual manner. The practical and economic problems of the Second Commonweal haven’t gone away, and the foursome’s services are frequently needed. Along with her assistance of Pelorios, Zora gradually introduces him to the norms and values of Commonweal society, and for her part learns how to shapeshift into a unicorn form. So far, so normal – a collapsing dam, a new plague blowing in from outside or an outburst of hyper-aggressive weeds are basically a normal day in the Commonweal. (By a similar principle, consider how the events of Mass Effect 3 are basically just Tuesday morning in Warhammer 40K terms. Except of course no day would have a name as heretically-pagan as Tuesday. Ahem.)
But, hints start to emerge that something isn’t quite right. The foursome find themselves caught up in more than their fair share of strange events. The apparent lethality of said events is trending upwards, as well. It slowly dawns on them that they’re being targeted, deliberately, by someone outside the Commonweal. You see, it appears that Reems wasn’t quite as destroyed as it seemed in ‘The March North’. But who – or what? – is pulling the strings?
Now that I’ve done my usual summary, here are my thoughts.
First of all, in terms of style, I found that ‘Safely’ is a balance between the more contemplative tone of ‘Succession’ and the more action-oriented structure of ‘March’. That said, it is worth noting that this series is strongly-biased toward the contemplative side of things – part of the point of this series is that it’s distinct from the ‘Hollywood blockbuster’ style of fantasy writing.
I also liked the focus on Zora, who was somewhat off to one side in ‘Succession’.
The book is written as a series of first-person chapters, from different characters’ viewpoints. I will admit that this could be a little hard to keep track of sometimes, though each chapter does specifically state who is narrating it. This is, however, an information-dense book – you’re presented with the world as the characters understand it, not as we would understand. Some things require interpretation from context, and the in-universe vocabulary can be confusing. I’m reasonably sure from the usage, for instance, that a ‘gesith’ is an executive department of the State, and a ‘fylstan’ is someone with executive authority within the civil administration. I do find the apparent lack of any Council of Ministers or Premier puzzling, though – my own experience of the public sector is that when no-one is in charge at the top of the pyramid, organisations tend to go off the rails. That said, I can accept this as a utopian element within what (in-universe) is a highly-utopian political project.
I also remain a little puzzled by the economics. ‘Succession’ clarified some things for me – the Commonweal almost certainly does have all the basic theory needed for electricity and so forth, they just don’t need it. (Whilst few people are capital-W Wizards, nonetheless a degree of Power aptitude isn’t particularly unusual, and in fact it’s common enough that most industrial activities are based around it to some extent. This makes electricity’s aptitude for long-distance energy transmission basically redundant.) However, it remains unclear whether the Commonweal uses an artificial means of exchange. I can’t recall seeing anyone buying goods, or indeed being paid. (That also raises some awkward questions about the Ur-Law principle of ‘neither lords nor lorded-over’ – if you’re not actually paid for your day’s labour, how can you be certain you aren’t a slave?) There are a few scenes where people handle coins of sorts, but it isn’t clear whether they’re Commonweal-minted or trophies taken off of Reems soldiers. (The only person I recall seeing with any number of coins was the Captain.) If there is no currency, then it raises questions as to how the gesiths are able to keep track of the economy to the state that they evidently do? Most official statistics in The Real World ultimately relate to money in some way, after all. If there is a Gesith of the Treasury or a Central Bank in the Second Commonweal, they’re keeping a very low profile.
(That said, this may again be another deliberate stylistic choice. The Commonweal culture is not one of untrammelled commercialist greed, after all.)
Also, whilst not a problem exactly, nonetheless there are a few elements of the social organisation that would be problematic for a lot of people. The Commonweal’s emphasis on communal eating would be troublesome if you had, for instance, social anxiety difficulties. (Speaking purely of myself, eating with strangers is something that I don’t seek out.) I also do wonder how the geans and the collectives and so forth cope with the inevitable frustrations, feuds and fallings-out that bedevil Real World workplaces? (I loathe corporate careerism and office politics with a fiery passion, I should add, but that isn’t enough to will it out of existence. It is a pattern of behaviour that real people will exhibit, sadly.)
Also, so far at least, we don’t know that much more about the deep history of the world than we did before. It’s clear that some sort of humanity antecedes the Power, but why was the Power created? Also, just what was it that happened a hundred thousand years ago? However, it’s better to be left wanting more than wishing there were less, so I should be careful of my moaning here 🙂
To try and wrap up this sprawling review, I would say that this volume (and this series) would appeal to readers interested in something different from Extruded Fantasy Product(tm). They would also appeal to readers who are tired of the usual Generic Aristorcracy(tm), and would like to see a sensible and intelligent exploration of other social structures. However, it’s fair to say that this series takes its readers’ intelligence seriously, and proceeds on that basis. Also, the pacing is generally slower than is the norm in fantasy literature, and the emphasis is on quiet moments rather than explosions. I think what I’m saying is, if you prefer your meat without the vegetables, then this may not be for you.