This review originally appeared in Black Gate, Winter 2002, the third issue of an ambituous new fantasy magazine, edited by John O'Neill. Visit the Black Gate website.
Night of Madness
by Lawrence Watt-Evans
Tor, New York, 2000, 384 pages, $24.95
A review by Rich Horton
Lawrence Watt-Evans has written many novels in a wide variety of genres, but he is probably best known as the author of the light fantasy Ethshar series. These aren't necessarily his best work (I'm personally partial to last year's rather more serious fantasy Dragon Weather, to take one example), but they are very engaging, always fun to read, with a comic touch somewhat reminiscent of the work of the late, great L. Sprague de Camp. It's been several years since the last Ethshar book, a hiatus caused partly by a change in publishers. But now Tor has released Night of Madness, the longest in the series, and the first, as far as I know, to come out in hardcover.
I've been calling Ethshar a series, but it's a very loosely connected one, linked mostly by setting and the occasional cameo appearance of recurring characters. Night of Madness is as good a starting point as any. Ethshar is the name of three cities, and also of a sort of nation (the Hegemony of the Three Ethshars), in a world in which many varieties of magic work. One of the appealing traits of the books is the description of the different sorts of magic, all of which use different methodologies, which are practiced by different people, and which have their own strengths and limitations. Examples are wizardry (casting of complex spells), witchcraft (spells using the body's own energy), demonology and theurgy (respectively, calling of demons and of gods), and sorcery (creating magical objects). Night of Madness, then, is about the sudden appearance in the world of a new kind of magic, called warlockry.
The book follows a number of characters, but the lead character is a young man, Lord Hanner, the nephew of Lord Faran, the Chief Advisor to the Overlord of the city of Ethshar of the Spices. Lord Hanner is a familiar type of character for Watt-Evans: a pleasant young man, without spectacular abilities, but one who is trying to do right, and who will learn something about his own strengths during the book. His main job at the opening is to help his uncle investigate the various types of magic. His uncle is fascinated by magic, but as a high government official, he is prohibited by the powerful Guild of Wizards from practicing it. Then one night (the title night), while Hanner is escorting a nice young lady home, something strange happens. People all over the city (indeed, all over the world), wake from nightmares to find that they have new powers, essentially telekinetic powers. Some can fly, and indeed some immediately set off to the North under a sort of compulsion. Others can only lift objects, or push things. Lord Faran is one of these newly powerful people. Lord Hanner, on the other hand, doesn't find himself with any new powers, but he is drawn to help some other people who are terrified by their new powers, or who are using them to victimize others.
Hanner ends up collecting a number of these new magicians, dubbed "warlocks", and tries to bring some of them who had been vandalizing, looting, and murdering people to justice. But the Overlord has ordered Lord Faran (who is concealing his new powers) to seal the Palace, in order to try to keep it free of this dangerous contagion. So Hanner ends up in Lord Faran's private house, with a clutch of newly-minted warlocks. They are soon joined by Faran, once the Overlord discovers that he too is a warlock. Hanner and his uncle then try to discover the nature and extent of the new warlock powers, which seem to vary greatly from one individual to the next. At the same time, they are facing tremendous hostility and suspicion from the residents of the city (who blame them for the disappearance of those who flew away, as well as for the vandalism), from the Palace officials and the Overlord, and from the other magicians, particularly the powerful wizards. The resolution is nicely handled, as Lord Faran's longstanding political position leads him to try one solution, contrasted with his decent, rather more innocent, nephew's inclination for a less power-oriented answer.
The story reads compellingly throughout. The characters are nicely drawn: as typical for Watt-Evans, they seem like ordinary, commonsensical, folks, very much the sort of people we live with. Lord Hanner is a pleasant, honest, and believable hero. The magical elements are nicely portrayed, and it's fun to unravel some of the secrets behind the new powers of warlockry. The tone is light, but with a serious background, and it's not so light that we lose sight of the bad things that happen to many people. This isn't a great book, but it's a solid enjoyable entertainment. If you haven't yet read any of the Ethshar books, this is a fine place to start. If you've been reading the series all along, you've probably been looking forward to its continuation, and you won't be disappointed.