The Misenchanted Sword is the first of Lawrence Watt-Evans’ Ethshar novels. The world is soaked in magic – one of those mid-‘80s creations of heavily D&D-influenced fantasy. The attitude can, perhaps, best be summed up by a quote from the book itself: “They wanted to believe in heroes, not ordinary, everyday magic.” (Think about it.)
The concept of the plot is a fairly clever twist on familiar themes: The main character, trapped in the middle of a generational religious war between the followers of the gods and the northern demon-worshippers, is gifted with a magic sword. Unfortunately, as the character rapidly learns, the sword’s enchantments include some rather annoying side-effects – among them the fact that the main character can’t get rid of it. (One might even say it was cursed.)
The back cover blurb on my copy of the book gives the impression that this will all result in something of a farce – like Asprin or Anthony in their prime. In reality, there’s nothing particularly funny about the book at all, and it’s rather clear that Watt-Evans never meant it to be. The story would better be described as something of a melancholic character drama.
The prose (or, perhaps more appropriately, the storytelling) can be awkward at times: There seems to be no trust that the reader will hold on to certain concepts (like the emerging nature of the sword’s enchantment), and thus the same information will be repeated incessantly.
In fact, there is a general lack of authorial confidence: Even the smallest details are given awkward justifications (as if the author were constantly fearful that someone were going to shout “gotcha!”). Every fact is repeated, and the main character goes round in circle after circle as he considers every possibility two or three times before finally taking action.
The setting also poses some problems. Ethshar is formed on the foundation of some rather intriguing and unique ideas, but the details seem to vary randomly between cleverly suggestive and puzzlingly vague.
Ultimately, the biggest problem is that the story seems to simply meander without much of a point. On the one hand, the most interesting sequences are simply glossed over – probably because the book is meant to be a character drama, not an adventure book. On the other hand, the main character never seems to achieve that vivid depth which would make his story interesting in-and-of itself. And, on the gripping hand, the flaws in the storytelling cause the entire book to wander with wild abandon.
All in all, I found this to be a solidly mediocre book – neither exceptional nor horrendously flawed. It would be a better book if it had been ruthlessly trimmed of its repetitive elements, with the freed-up space being used to move several incidents banished to exposition into the active narrative. As it is, this isn’t a book I’ll caution you against – but it’s not a book I’d recommend, either.
I’m glad that this wasn’t my first Watt-Evans, because otherwise I might draw very different conclusions about his quality as an author. As it is, I’ll almost certainly check out the second Ethshar book at some point to see how the intriguing and cleverly suggestive elements of the setting develop in the hands of a more mature author. My next Watt-Evans, however, will probably be Crosstime Traffic.
Publisher: Wildside Press
Cover Price: $14.95