Tracy & Laura Hickman, Mystic Warrior: Book One of The Bronze Canticles (Warner Books, 2004)

There's a lot to be said about crazy people. With the plethora of mental disorders, syndromes, and phobias out there these days, one can categorise the man who murmurs about "butchering human cattle" on the bus, the old lady who converses with the lawn gnomes in her yard, and the psychopath whose crimes are plastered on the front pages of our newspapers. I'm sure some of us are inclined to nod politely and avoid eye contact should we be confronted by a person who, according to society's definition, appears to be insane. Sensationalist law dramas on the television would gladly have you believe that people who are "not quite right in the head" are dangerous, unpredictable, and less than human.

Galen Arvad, the central character of Mystic Warrior, is convinced he's not insane. He has the oddest, most vivid dreams, and can speak with inanimate objects while others cannot, but that doesn't mean he's less mentally sound than anyone else. In his little town of Benyn, located in the land of Hrunard, mentally unstable people are referred to as the Elect, and once a year during the Harvest Festival such people are carried off to be taken care of by the members of the Pir Drakonis, Hrunard's one true religion. Sure, Galen's taken care to avoid going to the Election part of the Festival, but that's just to prevent the priests of the Pir from mistaking him for one of the raving lunatics who are picked out of the cheering crowd every year, never to be seen again.

However, through carelessness, Galen is caught by the Pir Guardians and dragged off to the Elections, where he is promptly labelled one of the Elect in front of his disbelieving wife Berkita and his dwarf partner Cephas. As he is taken prisoner along with the other Elect, he comes to discover that his strange dreams are having a magical effect on the real world around him, and that the majority of the Elect share the same mysterious power as he. Through him, we are introduced to the other worlds that Galen's dreams end up transforming, the sparkling, delicate land of the truth-seeking faeries, and a ruined desolation of a planet populated by goblins, imps, and ogres.

Tracy Hickman, whose imaginative mind helped pen the Dungeons-and-Dragons-based Dragonlance books, teams up with his wife, Laura Hickman (nee Curtis) to create Mystic Warrior, the first book of the Bronze Canticles. The tone of the novel leaps from tragic, to serious, to childishly comical, depending on which world provides the subject for the chapter. While somewhat unusual, it keeps up the pace of the novel, without drowning it completely in sticky slapstick, or bogging it down in despair. The writing style is heavily melodramatic however, and the equally overdramatic dialogue occasionally comes off sounding a tad too contemporary for the medieval setting. The authors introduce to us certain characters, such as Cephas the blind dwarf, who are evidently meant to be important to Galen and his journey, but they get so little exposure and have such a small affect on the present story that I had no interest in seeing what happens to them later on.

However, what kept me reading were the fantastic details of the tale. Dialogue and style aside, the story is creative, colourful, and completely original. Galen's magic, as we learn later on, goes far deeper than simply dreaming, but the Hickmans never let the cat out of the bag too soon. They dangled juicy titbits of knowledge in front of me like a carrot in front of a plodding donkey the whole way, urging me ever forward, tormenting my rampant curiosity. The authors also tease the reader with subtle ironies smuggled into the storyline, such as the faeries' inability to possess imaginations. Dwynwyn, Galen's contact in the faerie world, first appears as a shatteringly beautiful, perfect, otherworldly goddess in Galen's mind, but later on we realise that in her world, she's rather plain-looking, a hopeless slob, and is addicted to games that tell stories with many-sided dice (wink wink). The authors introduce new insights into the world of faeries, dwarves, and goblins, without doing away with the basic foundations of their species. So dwarves like Cephas still prefer the underground, faeries have a special connection with trees and growing things, and goblins continue to be generally greedy, conniving little brats, but their motivations and purposes for being and doing are imaginatively retooled by Tracy and Laura Hickman's creative minds.

In conclusion, reading the book was a generally enjoyable experience, and the series shows real promise. The tale has a sound conclusion while leaving enough unanswered questions to supply ample fuel for the other books soon to follow. The writing style can be syrupy at times, but it's worth slogging through the occasional sticky bits to get to the kernels of good storytelling within.

[Elizabeth Vail]