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Tabula Rasa

The Black Crusade

by Richard Harland. Chimaera Publications, 2004

Reviewed by Kyla Ward, 2004

"We are not nice people," Lord Sain began. "We're committed to evil in its ultimate form."

"Dear, oh dear," murmured Choldia. "Still, everyone ought to be committed to something in their lives."

The Black Crusade, by Richard HarlandI should say up front that I am a great fan of the previous volume of this mise en scène, The Vicar of Morbing Vyle (Karl Evans Press, 1993), and count the author a friend. That out of the way, I can inform you that, at the end of Morbing Vyle, the protagonist Martin Smythe believed he had destroyed the quintessential evil of the titular character. He has since made discoveries which throw new light onto the origins, and possible fate, of his enemy, and introduces the tale to follow. The Black Crusade can be read without having already read Morbing Vyle, but doing so is likely to result in a frantic search for the previous volume once you have sampled its Vyleness.

The Black Crusade is set in 1894, a century before the events of Morbing Vyle but some decades after those of 'The Procyon Plate' (Agog! Fantastic Fiction, ed. Cat Sparks, 2002), which may or may not be related. The action commences in Buda-Pesth where Basil Smorta, an innocent young bank clerk, encounters a mysterious English nobleman and experiences love at first sight, a radical interpretation of Darwinian theory and unprecedented methods of overland transport, in rapid succession. This is followed by ritual ordeals and, well, a crusade, on which the fate of the world may hang.

The nobleman's full name is Lord Malicide Sain. If you have not previously read any Harland, this is one of the delights of doing so -- the elaborate and fitting names of his characters. Volusia, Felicity Driddle, the Reverend Squench; that's the kind of world we're in here. A world operating on principles that, while logical, are taken always to the most ghastly extremes. However, unlike Martin Smythe, who penetrated the insularity of Morbing Vyle, Basil Smorta journeys outwards through a series of increasingly peculiar locations during his reluctant participation in the Crusade. This journey is fraught. Not even the first person narration runs entirely smoothly. Mr Smythe has only been able to publish Basil's writings on the sufferance of a team of interfering editors, whose footnotes and excisions interact with the text in surprising ways.

There is a definite element of satire in The Black Crusade. It lies in the scientist Ingel Brankel and his vision for the future, and in the ideologically complex town of Orblast, among other encounters. But it also lies over and above the narrative, in the editors and their insistence that the book obey the formulae of popular fiction, discounting any thought that the story may in fact be true.

So, while not a simple book, this is certainly an intriguing one, containing more ideas in 217 digest-sized pages than many a doorstopper horror or fantasy (it easily counts as both). If it has a weakness, it lies in the climax. Of course, this is a near-universal problem with prequels (compounded by first-person narration). Harland provides appropriate resolutions and surprises, but it still did not satisfy me as did the ending of Morbing Vyle. But there is undoubtedly a symmetry to the fate of the Crusade, and as the editors have been noting, Basil is simply not equipped to be a classical hero. But would heroism, in the dashing in, sword drawn, cape flying sense, really be any help at all?

So, has the evil been finally exorcised? The answer may lie at vilewatch.com, which contains Martin Smythe's latest known communication along with reports from "vilewatchers" all over the world. By the way, the cover illustration reproduced here accurately represents sequences in the book. If that doesn't scare you, then by all means embark upon The Black Crusade.

 

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