Lord Darcy, by Randall Garrett

July 28, 2012 at 11:46 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Mystery) (, , , )

9/10

It might well be suspected that many of the readers who find their way to this forgotten compendium traced from the pages of Analog are attracted to Lord Darcy principally (or solely) because of the dazzling lure that is Garrett’s deeply intriguing setting. Followers of The Fourth Person will realise that this reviewer seldom discusses the plots or settings of any books, save in the most general terms, or when they are particularly fascinating. The universe in which Garrett chooses to write is based in an alternate timeline, but also in an alternate scienceline. The two chief conceits are the domination of the western hemisphere by the Plantaganet dynasty, and the replacement of science with magic. Successful (and unsuccessful) books have been written in alternate timelines; and of course magic is a common trope invoked by science fiction and fantasy writers (although the excellently thought out relationship between magic and science in Lord Darcy is of the best and finest sort, very much like Susanna Clarke‘s peerless debut novel).

“‘According to the chief sorcerer at the Weather Office, your lordship, it isn’t due to break up until five minutes after five o’clock in the morning.'”

-Lord Darcy

Randall Garrett, however, manages to astound readers from the very outset by combining two interesting and piquing scenarios in a deucedly bold and daring array. He then crowns his well-baited hook with his pièce de résistance, and writes a story that would have been quite appealing and readable even outside of his exotic settings. Popular alternate history writers like Harry Turtledove or Robert Harris tend to fall apart when they spend so much effort crafting intricate “what if” scenarios that they forget to tell a good story; when they drag on for entire fictional eras and epochs and leave only the outline of their conceit, without anything to remember it by.

Garrett is pleasingly subtle, and while readers might have cause to complain that they are left with an unsatisfactory level of closure as to the vile machinations of the wicked Casimir, or without adequate exposition of the centuries of Plantaganet rule, they will be unable to complain that they have been ill-entertained. His mysteries are fun, and make no pretentions of aspiring to serious literature.He presents instead droll and exciting mystery stories: last of which is a charming recasting–or tribute–or mockery (it is sometimes difficult to tell) of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

“‘If either of you moves,’ said Lord Darcy calmly, ‘I will shoot him through the brain. Get your hands off those blade hilts and don’t move otherwise.'”

-Lord Darcy

Brief and simple as they are, his stories are written with considerable skill and due attention, and the temptation to make every crime either a deus ex machina with magical means and magical solutions is well avoided. Indeed, he ought to be doubly commended for his meandering parallels between his magical forensics and realistic early twentieth century forensics: ne’er the twain meet, and often they diverge, but there is always some measure of nearness between his fiction and our fact. This is a book in which everything good about it is at a slight distance, as it were. Never is his reader treated (or consigned) to an over-near examination of his history, his magic, or the writer’s own slightly smug cleverness. It has been said that nothing can spoil a story like too much exposition, and Garrett bears this up magnificently, providing us with a peripheral glimpse of an amazing world, and whisking it away while leaving that rarest of things: a fully satisfied reader yearning for more.

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