Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Challenger's Garland: Nathan's Take

Drawn by their dreams, Molok, Death's Black Knight, and Lobon, White Champion of Azal, meet before the white citadel of Azal in single combat.

"The Challenger's Garland" is the simplest story yet read by the Puppy of the Month Club, but don't be fooled. Simple does not mean poor. In this case, the simplicity creates room for "The Challenger's Garland" to develop theme and setting to enrich the story. Molok and Lobon are mirrored opposites of each other, and the fates have chosen these opposites to duel. The Black Knight serves Death, is driven by duty, and has no memories of his life before his service. Champion Lobon feeds off the bloodlust of battle, serves the living, and has the comfort of a wife and family. Both combatants are undefeated, at least before their duel. In his review, Jon noticed that “this is a yin-yang fight that leaves the reader an observer who is both fully neutral and fully invested in the outcome.” This observation continues to the outcome of the battle.  Molok recovers his lost memories just before Lobon kills him. Afterwards, Lobon takes up the mantle and weapons of Death's Black Knight, complete with its loss of self. The black turned to white and the white turned to black.  Redemption accompanied by a fall.

One of the pet peeves of mine in fantasy is the Grand Tour through the world that the author has built.  Normally, a story (or, more likely, a series) is drawn out to visit all the places an author has created to the detriment of the pacing and the plot.  "The Challenger's Garland" avoids that pitfall.  As Molok rides through Azari and Kinnivesse on the way to Azal, we see the dread he inspires from the reactions of the various peoples of the lands he rides through.  Instead of just showing off a writer's creativity, these lands and people build up Molok's might in the eye of the reader.  And when he requests a garland from the blind girl in Azal, it shows the dedication to his purpose.  While I would not go so far to say it humanizes Molok, it does show that he is not one for aimless cruelty.  Here the setting has a purpose, to develop character while it flavors the tale with the exotic.

Finally, "The Challenger's Garland" sets up the themes for Thune's Vision: Death and Fate. Molok goes to his fate as a matter of duty, observing the norms required.  Kor of the Ar, in “The Movements of the Ige”, courts his fate, chasing after his ritual death when it is denied to him.  Athan quests for his fate in "Athan and the Priestess", risking all for the greater future shown to him.   But Thune's Vision, in the great tradition of the pulps, also shows the folly of defying both Death and Fate. Lobon clings to his life and bloodlust, and, at the time of dying, ultimately chooses to defy his fate. Instead, he accepts another, more evil fate as Death's executioner, complete with the utter loss of everything that made him Lobon. By attempting to escape his fated death, Malathikos of “The Ecology of the Unicorn” rushed headlong towards it.  Each of the tales shows that the right action of Man is to, as Schuyler Hernstrom himself has said, "Hail beauty and truth. Hail courage and hail the hand that smites evil. Hail love and life. And when your sun finally sets, as it must, then hail death."

(You can read Jon's review of "The Challenger's Garland" here.)

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