Judgement at Verdant Court (World of Prime #3 - M.C. Planck)

Anti_Quated

Journeyed there and back again
#1
First, gratitude to the Publisher and to the folks here at BFB for sending this one my way. I read the first three books in the World of Prime series: Sword of the Bright Lady, Gold Throne in Shadow, and then Judgement at Verdant Court and being able to progress seamlessly was thoroughly appreciated and made for a more fulfilling and entertaining read. If anyone is interested, Id’ recommend reading them this way than standalones with time apart.

Christopher is, in short, a one-man revolution. He’s a modern American man, early middle-age, suddenly awakened in a fantasy world with medieval technology. The great masses of commonfolk look to powerful lords to keep them safe from the depredations of fantastic beasts and dark sorcery, as well as each other. The magic that imbues and sustains the preternatural abilities of these lords and cardinals and knights of the world of prime is tael, and can only be collected from vanquished foes, usually by boiling the head (as tael resides within the brain).

So, our budding revolutionary awakes, intervenes chivalrously to protect a peasant girl from the lusty advances of an entitled and belligerent local lordling, and in doing so, comically embarks upon a mission to uproot the foundations of Prime’s very society. Aided by a sombre and heroically humble military veteran, Karl, and a slew of other memorable allies, Christopher sets out to gather Tael, to protect the innocent, and to tear down the elites of Prime through modern technology. Drawing on his engineering prowess (from his life back home), Christopher builds an army of nobodies that become dauntless riflemen; mills, machinery, mass production and economies of scale all become cornerstones that enrich the lives (and fill the pockets) of Christopher’s growing empire as he and his army push at the frontiers of Prime. These stalwart allies are quite admirable, especially in their initial enthusiasm to basically go off and die as is the fate of every generation. Their belief in Christopher’s abilities seconded only by their proud but misunderstood awe of his ‘virtue’ as he spurns several would-be sexual conquests, pining for his wife back in his ‘reality’. All the poor bugger wants to do is get home; to do it, he’ll need enough rank/power to open a gateway back.

It’s actually quite a good read, straight-forward and descriptive without being laborious or grandiloquent, and is, for the most part, an enjoyable and entertaining adventure. There’s little doubt that Christopher is something of a ‘chosen one’ in his mission, though amusingly by sheer happenstance. The framework is very reminiscent of an RPG; there are knights and druids, lords and barons, wizards, cardinals, and minstrels. Each caste/discipline has a respective church or other governing body that facilitates and guards their respective secrets and operational knowledge, as well as a colour-based system of morality. Blue for those who hold the law as penultimate, green for honour/prestige, yellow for personal aggrandisement and selfish gain, white for purity and benevolence, red for aggression and wanton bloodshed, and black for the most nefarious of deeds and wilful evil.

Hardly original, but it’s utilised consistently and helps to underpin the motivations of certain characters. Where it becomes more appealing is when there is discernible conflict between a character’s actions and their supposed moral affiliation/shading; though in the three books I’ve only encountered it a few times. Suffice to say, there’s political and personal conniving by almost every character except Christopher who remains quite blunt, and perhaps a little foolhardy, in how he approaches political convocations with peers, potential foes, and neutral parties. Brilliant engineering and technical aptitude, but lacking some common sense or social etiquette and tact. It can be endearing at times, and frustrating at others when seemingly every other character ‘gets it’, while Christopher bum-rushes and bumbles his way through these scenes.

Thankfully, his dedication to his wife and his soldiers proves more than a satisfying counterbalance. Christopher’s character is genuinely empathetic to the common man, though his altruism comes across too saccharine at times when extolling the mighty egalitarian wonders of modern American society – a bit of a slap in the face and comes across as either too idealistic and naïve in the character, or the author’s less than subtle agitprop. It bothered me somewhat, but in light of the political efforts of individuals like Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Jefferson perhaps such patriotic sentiments are valid and appropriate. Other than this, Christopher proves to be an adequate leader and figurehead, leading from the front in battles that nearly kill him on multiple occasions, displaying considerable humility and recognition for the talents of his subordinates, if a little too trusting or forgiving of the greedy or seemingly sinister machinations and scheming of some of his more colourful or key personnel. The philandering mill guy comes to mind as an especially dislikeable jackarse, and Fey, the Alchemist, is, well, a cold, haughty bitch.

There’s plenty of likeable characters, mind, and Christopher’s small group soon swells into a large army replete with heroes of their own renown. It is this veritable cast of thousands that help sell the narrative; each is detailed and nuanced with enough differences to make them stand out as separate individuals, and while there are some die-hard trope runners plying their wares here, there are also some disarmingly refreshing facets to the characterisation.

Action scenes come in two flavours, minor skirmishes/duels, or massive set-pieces. And both are handled well, the latter in particular are great reading and these stood as the strongest aspects of the books for me. Grand adventures lead to an unsupported defence against a tide of goblin-esque marauders, where the only hero seemingly capable of winning the day is a Lord who orders a retreat, only to be upstaged by Christopher’s fledgling rifle battalion. Many of the common folk and soldiers end up dead in these books, but the miraculous skills of a Cardinal of the White who befriends Christopher ensures most can be resurrected, calling the spirit back and restoring the body as long as even a small piece remains, such as a bone or a thumb or some such.

In that sense mortality isn’t really a worry for Christopher or his men; yes, there’s an associated cost in gold for the Cardinal’s efforts, and a somewhat restrictive time period for post-mortality triage and subsequent resurrection but it’s hardly disconcerting. As the series progresses with seemingly higher stakes and vastly more powerful foes, the sense of real danger, of permanent death, doesn’t hover as it did in the first battles of the first book, and I felt the risk of danger and death, while more pronounced, was far less likely to happen. Christopher and his swelling ranks, heroes and all, essentially are levelling up through tough odds, but they always seem to come out unscathed excepting one or two acceptable losses of a minor character.

Everyone key to Christopher’s enterprise is, like Christopher, ultimately less and less likely to be killed off, despite a few close calls, and after a while I was acutely disappointed at the lessened potential for tragedy to befall the army. Knowing that real, permanent death could still occur helped flavour the sense of emotional investment and excitement as the larger battle sequences loomed, and eventually I came to care far less for the mighty heroes and Christopher, and more for the common footsloggers and the poor bastards who would get churned through the melee meat-grinder. That said, it may be the author’s intent to elicit this sense of peasant-soldier solidarity, all the more to root for Christopher’s efforts to upset the power balance and effect a more favourable and equitable distribution of resources and abilities across Prime.

The landscapes are common enough; a sort of Scandinavian peasant countryside in winter, castle-towns and isolated bastions, druids in the woods, steaming swampy jungles, etc. Still plenty of fun to go wandering along with Christopher and his increasingly skilled and seasoned soldiers through. The world-building is sufficient for the tale, and that which is featured is relatively conventional (castles, cults, beasts, booze, warlords, wenches, necromancers, bad guys, etc - all familiar enough to anyone who’s read Fantasy once or twice in their time) and doesn’t hold many surprises. Conflicting loyalties, internecine and external politics on a micro and macro scale between factions - it’s all here, and can make for a little tedium depending on whether you like the characters or factions Christopher is engaging with. The sense of history (or lack thereof) for Prime gets explained and makes considerable sense, where the scale is a little ambiguous at times. Prime can’t be circumnavigated without a decent horse of two, and as yet I don’t recall much mention of the sea/ocean; fairly landlocked are the regions where Christopher’s adventure to date has occurred. Eventually Christopher and his crew find that, indeed, here be monsters, which isn’t as straight-forward as they initially assume.

Much of the novels feels game-like, gathering resources and experience, curb-stomping or barely surviving a battle, only to level-up accordingly thereafter; unsurprisingly I discovered after reading that MC Planck has created an RPG with rules and such that correspond to the rank/cast/morality systems of the book… horse and cart/chicken and egg thing here, from what I read. That’s not to say such elements detract from the novel, rather they provide a semblance of verisimilitude and an overarching framework that ensures consistency. It’s all too easy to deus ex machina in some magic dragon sword and such, but thankfully Christopher and his allies suffer many setbacks and obstacles due to their various limitations and lack of rank/tael. Money talks, yo’, and Tael is it in the world of Prime. Gold too, but the former is rather more commanding of everyone’s attention and desire to obtain. Intriguingly, Christopher himself has noted the unquestioning avarice even he has begun to develop toward obtaining tael and the ranks it can bestow; so I’m curious to see how this plays out in the later novels.

There’s also a looming, pseudo-Lovecraftian malevolence that has only been hinted at or discussed in hushed tones; it seems Christopher’s true mission from the War God Marcius (who makes Christopher his priest in the beginning of the first book) is to propagate massive changes across Prime, not just for the hell of it, but to ensure a more balanced civilisation capable of withstanding the eventual cataclysmic voraciousness of the dastardly squiddies (or the Hjerne-Spica, as they’re titled) when they finally rock up. Curious to see how the author explores this in the next book as it’s only been a small, but horrifying, revelation for Christopher.

All in all, fairly strong characterisation and balance, decent plotting and pacing of the narrative, great action scenes, mostly likeable characters, one or two convenient escapes and near-misses but nothing unforgivable; MC Planck’s World of Prime series is one I would recommend, particularly for fans of Gunpowder fantasy, Warhammer novels, or RPGs.

Sword of the Bright Lady 4/5

Gold Throne in Shadow 3/5

Judgement at Verdant Court 4/5