Saturday, October 18, 2008

Summa Elvetica

A week ago while I was feeling under the weather (thanks in part to a reaction from a tetanus booster), I got a little pick-me-up. My order from Marcher Lord Press arrived. So after I finished up Stepping Into Sunlight, I decided to dive into the stack and read Summa Elvetica: A Casuistry of the Elvish Controversy.

This was one of the books I had been looking forward to reading ever since I heard of it. The story centers around the intriguing premise of setting a Roman Catholic Church analogue into a medieval fantasy setting. The Church would probably have to wrestle with any number of issues, the stickiest of which would be whether or not the non-human creatures had souls.

That's the question that the Sanctiff (the pope analogue) is out to answer. Do elves have souls? So he sends Marcus Valerius, a young church scholar who might someday become a priest, with two prominant theologians to the kingdom of Elebrion to answer that question once and for all.

The stakes are pretty high. If the delegation decides the elves do indeed have souls, then the Church has an obligation to send missionaries to them. If they decide they don't, then it's open season on the elves. They can be killed without any qualms and the human beings of the Amorran Empire can steal all their stuff.

Beale is an accomplished storyteller. This is evidenced by the fact that he stuck what amounted to two massive flashbacks into the front of his story and I didn't realize until I got to the end of the first. And Beale also put in a great deal of tension and I didn't see the ambush coming until it was too late. On top of that, the way the Sanctiff decides the question of elvish souls is so deliciously simple, I couldn't stop smiling after I read it.

That being said, there were two things that bothered me about this book, both of them related to craft.

First of all, there's the fact that the fantasy creatures are pretty much straight out of Tolkien. The elves are tall and willowy, the dwarves and stocky and earthy, the orcs are mean and stupid. Beale did put something of an interesting twist on the elves by making them both hedonistic and somewhat cowardly, but otherwise, it was pretty much stereotypical creatures. It might have been better if Beale could have done a little more "twisting," so to speak, to make the creatures truly his own. But a lot of authors do this, so it's not that big of a deal.

The second problem, though, really rankled me. Let's take a spoiler-free walk through the book. You start out with Marcus Valerius receiving his assignment from the Sanctiff and setting out for the kingdom of Elebrion. Along the way, we have the aforementioned "flashbacks." By the time you're done with them, 120 pages of this 322 page book is gone. When I realized that, I was a little surprised, but figured it would all work out because Beale had plenty of "room" to work.

But then I realized that the last 100 pages of the book are two shorter stories set within the Summa Elvetica universe. The story started to seem a bit more rushed and shorter than it could have been. And then Beale sums up some major developments in the books in one paragraph and tells us about a major event in one sentence.

At first, I was surprised by that and only a bit annoyed. But then, when I realized that that major event wasn't just major for Marcus Valerius, but was pivotal for the entire book, I got a pretty upset. This might be Monday morning quarterbacking, but it may have been better for Beale to show us this major event rather than describe it after the fact, especially because of its import to the hero's journey and the story as a whole.

That's not to say that I didn't enjoy this book. Beale created an interesting universe and I really enjoyed the short story "Master of Cats." If there's a sequel in the works, Beale has a ready reader. I just hope he doesn't gloss over future important events!

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