RogerBW's Blog

Oath Bound, Melissa Scott and Jo Graham 20 September 2021

2015 historical fantasy, fifth in the Order of the Air series. Late in 1935, Alma, Lewis and Mitch are showing off the new Catalina at an air show in Palermo, while Jerry is across the Med in Alexandria following magical hints to the lost tomb of Alexander the Great.

So the basic idea of this series is Mercedes-Lackey-style pagan magicians saving the world, combined with heroic aviation pioneers. In other words the authors aimed it squarely at me. And while it certainly isn't perfect, much of the time it works. In the first three books, anyway.

But they took a couple of years off before releasing volumes 4 and 5 in the same year along with a single-volume edition of the first three, and to me at least the spark has gone. This time the magical and aviation stories don't blend at all: Jerry does magical archaeology, while the others end up flying their Cat on a supply mission to embattled Ethiopia (before the League of Nations has shrugged and said "not our problem, guv"), and they meet only briefly and in passing.

There's some attempt to pep things up with cameos for Italo Balbo, Hermann Göring and Rudolf Hess at the air show, but none of them rises beyond the historical basics. Count Carl Gustaf von Rosen shows up as a possibly Nazi-allied flyer, which if you've never heard of him might seem plausible (he's Göring's nephew-by-marriage, after all), but I'm the sort of reader who has. Similarly, most of the material on the Italo-Ethiopian war could come straight from the Wikipedia page; it's fine to start with something like that if you then pastiche it up into an interesting story, but as presented it's disappointingly bare.

There's also a remarkable lack of threat or opposition. During that delivery run our heroes see some fighters in the distance and try to hide from them, and later some of them get into fighters of their own to try to repel an Italian air raid, but that's it. In the sewers of Alexandria there's some physical challenge (Jerry lost a leg below the knee in the war, and the practicalities of dealing with this situation on 1930s prosthetics have always been one of the stronger points of the series), but similarly no actual opposition, and having found the Tomb they decide to leave it hidden because clearly War Is Coming and they don't want it to be part of a Triumph in Rome. Staci, left behind in Palermo to care for the children and because the authors seem to have lost interest in her, merely burgles Hess's hotel room.

There are a couple of reliable tricks to telling side stories in a well-documented history with which you want to keep consistent, if you also want some degree of tension. Option one, you can say "if this evil scheme comes off, things will be So Much Worse than they otherwise might be"; then our heroes foil the evil scheme and the historical version happens. Option two, you can make many of the consequences hidden, quite easy when you're dealing with secret magic that the history books won't record, or just make them small-scale enough that they're unnoticeable on the big historical scale even though they're still important in people's individual stories. Scott and Graham do none of these things; they want their characters participating in big historical events, but they also want to make sure this world's history reads very much like that of our own, and the result is strangely flat. This was easier when it was the late 1920s and early 1930s, but they chose to roll the timeline forward to get into the explicitly approach-of-war stuff…

Which flatness means I'm not distracted by the story from noticing that a book needs more of an editorial pass than a run through the spellchecker. If you want to convince me you've done your research on ritual magic, you probably shouldn't spell the tarot card's name as "Heirophant". (This also betrays that you don't know any Greek, which a ritualist really ought to.) If you want to convince me you've done your research on aviation, you need someone who knows that the aircraft company is spelled Bréguet, or at least Breguet (though they are a mere watchmaker), not Breuguet. And even if it were Breuguet, it's not also Breugeuet and Brueguet. The spellchecker function for "this word is OK, but don't add it to the general dictionary" is "Ignore All", at least in LibreOffice…

The book ends with "To be continued in: FIRE SEASON", but there's been no sign of it in the six years since this came out.

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Previous in series: Wind Raker | Series: Order of the Air

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