The Lure of the Basilisk: A Review

Date: Sat, 13 Jul 1996 23:29:43 -0700

Organization: Law Office of Stevens R. Miller

The Lure of the Basilisk by Lawrence Watt-Evans

Review by Stevens R. Miller

This review is in the public domain.

Books take their readers to other times, other places. None do that so well as fantasy novels. The fantasy author has the power of a god and can use it to build worlds that neither do, nor ever really could, exist. That's an awesome task by itself, yet the fantasy author, having built a world, must go on to the more mundane task of telling a story there. And, mundane as it may be -- by comparison to having scratch-built a universe -- it can be rather more difficult than most other fictive drama. This is because, lacking anything familiar, the fantasy world may not easily generate events about which a reader will care.

The great names of the genre have most often met this challenge by implicating tremendous issues that generate a sympathetic concern. Tolkien, the archetype, put the whole of Middle Earth into jeopardy and equated Frodo's struggle against Sauron with the transcendent battle of all good against all evil. If the reader doesn't care about that, what else is there?

To make the story accessible, Tolkien made Frodo as simple and ordinary a character as he could. The reader may not be a hobbit, but he can identify with being a small player in the great game of life. The interplay of vast, forbidding forces and Frodo's gentle honesty made perfect use of an impossible time and place to tell a gripping story.

In The Lure of the Basilisk, Lawrence Watt-Evans chose to do it a harder way. Nothing so grand as good-versus-evil is implicated as the protagonist, Garth, pursues his self-appointed quest for eternal fame. Instead, putting his faith in a local oracle, Garth (a big, strong, slightly dumb humanoid non-human known as an ''overman'') accepts the assignment of the Forgotten King to capture and bring back the first living thing he finds in the crypts of the city of Mormoreth.

That's a pretty big order, as it turns out, but it's not the start of a big story. That is, while one might develop a vicarious sense of purpose while reading about the penetration of Mordor, who would care about Garth's ego? Well... I would. Or, to be more accurate, I came to care about the adventure his ego forced upon him. While I didn't particularly give a damn about his reasons, I was able continuously to identify with Garth's approach to his mission.

Watt-Evans has told this story in meticulous detail, never wavering from Garth's third-person limited point of view. As a result, the reader sees what Garth sees, knows what Garth knows, and has the chance to noodle out the solutions to the myriad problems that Garth must solve. It's almost like (to overuse a phrase) being there.

For example, Garth acquires a jewel that can render him invisible. Upon his first use, he discovers that this has a few downsides. To begin, he can't see his own body or possessions (and burns his fingers as a result). Next, he can't move anything that he can see. Then, he drops his sword and can't find it. Say, what if he drops the jewel? Uh oh...

Though Garth isn't human, he's nothing so special that the reader feels intimidated. Instead of being a character for the reader to watch, Garth is a vehicle for the reader to ride. You don't follow him, so much as let him carry you along. As his quest proceeds, the reader can't help but want Garth to succeed, because -- as with Frodo -- a sympathetic bond develops. It takes a few pages for this to happen, but it grows stronger as Garth's progress improves.

Garth himself is a refreshingly direct, honest fellow. He has no love for violence or death and will not cause more trouble than he can justify. He's a dreadful liar with the result that his straightforward dialogs are more disarming to his adversaries than any Baileyesque cross-examination. And, though he isn't human, he has no remarkable special abilities that appear when nothing else will solve the dilemma of the moment.

Now, in case it isn't clear, I liked this book. But, one might ask, why choose something from 1980 (and probably out of print, as far as I know) to review? As with the problem of fantasy itself, what could possibly make anyone care about Lure when Watt-Evans is publishing new stuff today?

The answer is in the amplified power of this particular book to do what other books can only do in a limited way: take you to another time. In this case, the time is the moment when a new writer's career was launched. In an engaging and self-effacing essay (available among his Web pages), Watt-Evans has explained the birth of this novel as the almost-didn't-make-it springboard to the twenty-something novels and over 100 short stories that have followed it. (Let's not be ambiguous: Lure has two sequels [three, actually -- LWE] ; the other stuff is just the rest of the author's oeuvre.)

In an autobiographical sketch that parents everywhere should keep from their children (for fear they will all follow his example), Watt-Evans does as much as anyone can to reinforce the notion that a relentless, chuck-it-all devotion to writing will get one published. He flunked out of Princeton (Princeton!) and was told to wait a year before reapplying. He collected over 70 rejection slips (submitted with that reapplication as evidence of his seriousness) while waiting for his first sale. Lure, which had begun as a novelette (novella? I can never remember the difference), was one of those. Years later, rid of Princeton for a second time, Watt-Evans was at the eve of abandoning writing altogether when Del Rey told him they would buy the novel version of the story.

To read it is, therefore, to see the author in another time and place. Apparently steeped in the modality of late '70s fantasy, the young (twenty-five or so) writer spoke in a voice of those times. For example, Garth's field of vision is his "gaze." A dining room is a "chamber." Townsfolk say "methinks." It gets a bit grandiloquent at times, but that's the way fantasy was, in the late '70s.

In the same vein, fantasy of that era often seemed a bit embarrassed about itself. As a result, one often found hints that the world being rendered was either a precursor (Tolkien himself gave in to this one) or follower of our own. Watt-Evans hints that Garth lives in a land descended of the one we live in. It neither helps nor hinders the story; I suspect it is merely an artifact of the times in which the author found himself.

In delightful contrast to these features -- which are a minor aspect of the book as a whole -- are the passages where the author's individual voice is clear. For example, when Garth is confronted in a show-down by the wizard Shang, he is told, "You will recall that I told you I would kill you if you captured the basilisk." He answers, "We all make foolish remarks on occasion." A purely derivative author, slaving himself to Howard or Lovecraft, wouldn't have had the confidence for dialog so droll.

Lawrence Watt-Evans is, by anyone's standard, an established professional writer. The Lure of the Basilisk, his first book, does more than take you to its fantasy world. It will take you to the moment when a coming professional writer didn't yet know he would ever be established, when a Ring of Power set the standard he would have to meet, and when a Princeton degree meant no more to him than being a teller of stories.

3 stars out of 4.

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