Down the Stacks returns this week with a bit of light, standard fantasy fiction: The Wood Nymph and the Cranky Saint by C. Dale Brittain.
One issue I have with my local library is that they seem to have a bad habit of not keeping the first entry of a series in the catalog while having all the remaining books. My selection for this week’s review is from one of those series, but I do not feel like I missed any crucial details by skipping Brittain’s first book, A Bad Spell in Yurt.
Wood Nymph chronicles the second adventure of Daimbert, a young yet white-haired wizard who serves as the Royal Wizard of Yurt, a tiny kingdom in a standard sword-and-sorcery, quasi-medieval world. The king of Yurt, having completed his last court case for the month, decides to take his wife and infant son on a vacation, leaving Yurt in the hands of his nephew and former heir, Dominic, unofficially supported by Daimbert and the Royal Chaplain, Joachim. No sooner is the king out of the country, however, when interesting times descend upon the poor wizard. To start with, Joachim is tasked by his bishop to travel to the shrine of Saint Eusebius, the titular Cranky Saint, to verify claims that the Saint desires his relics to be moved to another location and also to look into the presence of the titular Wood Nymph in the grove around the saint’s shrine. Daimbert gets pulled into this because nymphs are magical creatures and magical creatures are wizard’s business. Along the way to the saint’s grove, matters escalate with reports of strange horned rabbits running about, a local duchess hiring her own personal wizard, the sudden appearance of a mysterious hunter named Nimrod, and both Daimbert’s retired predecessor and Dominic starting to exhibit mid-life crisis behaviors.
Daimbert is the narrator of the story, and, despite his admitted inexperience and history of sleeping through classes at wizard school, shows himself to be very dedicated to his job and as wise as you’d expect a wizard to be. Throughout the book he keeps commenting on the difficulties he has prioritizing the problems that keep stacking up on his plate and in convincing others to let him move on to a different problem when he hits roadblocks on the current issue, but he never gives up. I feel as if he sells himself short on his political acumen, as he demonstrates superb discretion when discussing various issues, knowing who to keep what secrets from and who to trust his doubts with.
The chaplain Joachim is Daimbert’s closest friend and ally throughout the book, a fact that worries the supporting characters from both magical and religious backgrounds because in this book’s setting wizards and priests tend to have a lot of tension between them regarding matters of good and evil and the use of supernatural power. Joachim is a thin, stoic fellow who rarely smiles and never laughs but is still supportive of Daimbert and willing to both dispense advice and ask for Daimbert’s professional opinion on things where magic and religion come into frequent contact, such as the wood nymph in the Cranky Saint’s grove.
Daimbert’s other major ally in the book is the new ducal wizard, Evrard. Fresh from the wizard school, Evrard is an outspoken, excitable fellow who is far too eager to please his new employer and the Royal Wizard. In the latter case, Evrard often tries to pull small magical pranks on Daimbert, perpetuating a traditional activity from the school. When dealing with Evrard, Daimbert feels torn between concern for the lad’s behavior and happiness that there’s another wizard around to talk to besides the cranky, traditionalist former Royal Wizard who always makes his disdain for Daimbert’s formal wizard schooling clear in every conversation the two have.
Of the two characters named in the title, the Cranky Saint proves to be both more interesting and more important to the plot than the Wood Nymph. The nymph is a beguiling and mysterious creature who takes up a lot of Daimbert’s time about halfway through the novel, but her nature ultimately makes her little more than a time sink for both the characters and the page count. Both Daimbert and Evrard wile away a couple days just talking to her, but come away remembering nothing of their conversations. Saint Eusebius, on the other hand, has an amusing history of answering rude requests in ironic ways and becomes one of the central points of conflict in the story, as Daimbert needs to help Joachim make sense of the Saint’s mixed messages to various holy men who have an interest in the saint’s relics.
The pacing of The Wood Nymph and the Cranky Saint is… odd to me. Aside from the section focused on the nymph, there are no wasted actions and no overdrawn descriptive sections. If Daimbert isn’t chasing down a magical monster or weaving spells, he’s doing research or pressing people for information. Yet, the story doesn’t race along at the pace I’d expect; it’s not slow or fast but not in a good middle ground either. This is probably just due to a difference in my expectations and the expectations of formula fantasy in the early 1990s, when the book was published. And the story is pretty formula despite not hitting too many cliches. The world Brittain built is, perhaps, not very imaginative. So far as I can tell the geography is pure imagination, but it contains things like Christianity, volleyball, and magically powered communication devices called telephones, and Brittain doesn’t try anything new with his magical creatures or the use magic itself. Still, the world fits together nicely and is an appropriate background for the kind of story the book tells.
The Wood Nymph and the Cranky Saint is average: nothing spectacular but still worth the time to read if you have nothing else to do in the afternoon.