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POUL ANDERSON & MILDRED DOWNEY BROXON

THE DEMON OF SCATTERY
1979

Book cover art by Michael Whelan.
Review © 2001 by Thomas M. Wagner.

This book is actually not much more than a novella, with close to four dozen of its 193 pages taken up by a wealth of Hugo-winning artist Alicia Austin's curiously stiff and two-dimensional line drawings. And the text is in a really large point-size, too. Still, no publisher today is pushing illustrated fiction as much as Ace did round about twenty years ago. On the one hand, one can (and should) fully support publishers' rejecting any sort of format that might reinforce mainstream notions that SF and fantasy are some sub-literate form of entertainment for kids and dweebs. On the other hand, these kinds of books provided work for artists.

Ah, well, enough polemicizing. How's the damn story? Actually quite good, though it never veers too far from a fairly predictable course. The tale opens in the 9th century, as a trio of viking ships arrives at the island of Scattery off the coast of Ireland, having already had a fairly successful run of raping and pillaging throughout the Isles. Led by the grim yet valorous Halldor, the Norsemen waylay a group of hapless monks in a lonely tower, but Halldor's son, Ranulf, is nearly killed in the brief meleé when one lucky novice drops a very large rock on his head. Ranulf's life is saved by Brigit, a nun captured by Halldor on a previous raid; impressed by Brigit's nobility in the face of all she has had to suffer (what do you think vikings do to women?), her willingness to aid her captors, and admittedly intimidated by her devotion to her Christian God, Halldor promises Brigit her freedom if Ranulf recovers. Though of course, Halldor has no qualms about taking Brigit for himself.

But Brigit's faith in Christ is wavering even as she seems to have instilled some in Ranulf, and her crisis only increases as Halldor's ships return to the island one day after having sailed off to sack an abbey some miles away. After an anguished monk commits suicide at having felt abandoned by Christ, a desperately embittered Brigit has a supernatural encounter with a pagan goddess, her namesake, that spurs her towards fulfilling her vengeful desires upon the vikings. (Needless to say, this story will probably piss off Christians, and is thus not recommended to them.)

It's fairly easy to figure out what transpires next just by looking at the cover of the book, and yet the sequence is still exciting. But even as the story can be criticized for its predictable turns (the scene in which Brigit draws Halldor into her trap practically screams "plot point"; there's really no reason for him to agree to go along with it), it still makes for pleasurable reading due to strong characterization given to Halldor and Brigit, who come across as believable people — especially Brigit — rather than mythic archetypes simply filling stock roles in a stock legend. The prose is crisp and very accessible, except for an incongruous prologue that is written in an annoyingly pompous high-myth style and really has no reason to be in the book. There are also a couple of appendices, detailing the historical and mythical roots of the novel; neat stuff.

My biggest criticism is directed towards Alicia Austin's drawings, most of which — to be blunt — just plain suck. Her linework is overly mannered, her subjects — even when running or engaged in battle — are as rigid as mannequins, and she has a poor grasp of spatial relationships, leading to drawings that look utterly flat even when they depict large vistas. And she can't draw water. Surely there was someone better Ace could have tapped. Perhaps the authors just like her. But mainly, the drawings are superfluous. I found myself visualizing the story in my own way, as with any other non-illustrated novel. The drawings added nothing to my enjoyment or understanding of what is, in essence, a simple tale.

The Demon of Scattery will appeal to fans of romantic fantasy in the mood for light reading. I think honest-to-goodness legends ought to live up to a higher standard than that, but there's nothing wrong with a light read every now and again.