Speak to the Devil by Dave Duncan

(2010-08-05)

297 pages

Tor Hardcover

Back in 2006 and 2007 I reviewed Dave Duncan's "Dodec Books," a duology taking place on a planet shaped like a twelve-sided die. It was my first taste of Duncan's work and I really enjoyed his quirky take on fantasy tropes and religious, political, and social themes. The first entry in his newest series, Speak to the Devil, is a delightful combination of epic fantasy and historical fiction, set in the imaginary European kingdom of Jorgary during the last days of chivalry in the fifteenth century. 

The tale opens with Anton Magnus, member of the Light Hussars stationed in the capital city of Mauvnik and younger brother of Ottokar, Baron Magnus of Dobkov, summoned to a meeting with the Richelieu-esque Cardinal Zdenek, the real power behind the throne of Jorgary. The Cardinal informs Anton that the Count Bukovany and his only son have both died under suspicious circumstances, leaving Jorgary's borderland county of Cardice vulnerable to the enemy nation of Pomerania. Moreover, Cardice's neighbor, the ambitious Count Vranov of Pelrelm, is likely to "come to the rescue" of his nominal ally by bringing an army to Cardice's Castle Gallant to defend against the Pomeranians – and to coerce the dead count's daughter Madlenka into marrying his son Marijus, who would thus become the de facto Count of Cardice. Finding these developments unpalatable, the Cardinal proposes a deal for Anton: if he agrees to travel to Cardice and defend Castle Gallant from invaders foreign and friendly, the Cardinal will name him Count of Cardice and mandate that Madlenka be his bride. 

There's only one catch: Mauvnik is several days from Cardice, and for Anton to get there in time would require a miracle – or diabolism. Anton suddenly realizes why the Cardinal has chosen him for this task: the Cardinal knows that Anton's younger brother and squire Wulfgang is a Speaker. 

In the world of Speak to the Devil, Speakers are those who hear voices inside their heads and through appeals to these voices achieve seemingly impossible feats. It is believed that the voices are those of the Devil, and anyone identified as a Speaker is faced with a choice: life in a monastery or death. Although Wulf and his brothers try to keep his ab ility hidden from the world, no secrets escape the Cardinal's web of spies and informants when they may be used to serve the throne. Thus begins a series of adventures that draw Wulf, Anton, and their brothers Ottokar, Marek and Vladislav into the political intrigues of Jorgary, testing their bonds of brotherhood and the limits of Wulf's powers as a Speaker. 

Of these three conflicts – the political, the familial, and the personal – I found the tensions between the brothers (and Anton's betrothed Madlenka) the most interesting and entertaining. Family dynamics seem to be a matter of particular interest to Duncan, whose Dodec Books explored the relationships between the Celebre siblings. In Speak to the Devil, the relationships between Wulf and his brothers Anton and Marek are especially integral to the overall story, as it is through them that the political conflicts and Wulf's personal journey as Speaker develop. In the early going I was a bit impatient at the slow development of these latter plotlines, but became less so when I viewed the story, at least in this first book, as being primarily about the brothers.

The religious conflicts involving Speaking and the political struggles characteristic of the late Middle Ages seem like excellent material for an engaging fantasy epic, but in Speak to the Devil the threat that the Church, the Pelrelmians, and especially the Pomeranians pose to the Magnus brothers is more spoken about than seen. It may be that Duncan chose to focus on background and character in this first book and plans to delve deeper into the religious and political issues merely touched upon so far in the next book. As for Wulf's personal story, in which he develops (and comes to grips with) his abilities as a Speaker, based on what we see in this first book, I wonder right now whether there are any limits to his power, a potential problem because it seems that a sufficiently potent Speaker could render all other conflicts moot with a mere thought. Hopefully the next book will help to clarify the parameters of Wulf's abilities. 

Overall I found Speak to the Devil to be an enjoyable first book of what will hopefully turn out to be an even better series. I still have occasional quibbles with some aspects of Duncan's writing style (in particular certain word choices that I just find jarring), but Duncan continues to impress me with how he manages to explore serious topics like family, religion and politics in his tales while maintaining a sense of lightness that avoids trivialization. I have some questions and concerns about the story so far, but rather than dissuading me from recommending Speak to the Devil, they compel me to see what Duncan does with them in the next book.

© 2010 Arthur Bangs

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