Russell, Sean. 1998. The Compass of the Soul. New York: DAW.

Reviewed 14 October 1998

The Compass of the Soul (cover) We're now in the middle of Mr. Russell's story about the end of magic. We've already seen the beginning (Beneath the Vaulted Hills 4 stars) and the end (World Without End 3 stars and Sea Without a Shore 4 stars). The latter two books were written first, and deal with a somewhat different set of characters. Strangely enough, reading the books in the order they were written--rather than in the order of the events they portray--works.

Russell's writing has evolved to near-transparency. While his characters often speak in an elevated or idiosyncratic fashion, the narrator does not. Whether intentional or not, the contrast creates an interesting tension between the dialogue and the action that goes a long way toward validating the characters' collective guilt and despair at amnesia.

Collective guilt and despair at amnesia? Surprisingly, those two factors work together to help raise this novel above the ordinary. This is not a dry philosophical tract, it is a story. Nonetheless, it is a story about plausible people doing implausible things for plausible reasons—and sometimes no apparent reason at all. Erasmus and his companions were buried at the end of Beneath the Vaulted Hills, and survival instincts have led them to thwart the last mage's plans by (mostly) surviving that burial. Eldrich, the last mage, is not amused. The remainder of the book reaches a somewhat predictable goal—if only because we know, due to World Without End, that the variety of magic Eldrich feared has been suppressed—via a circuitous route that would be outrageous for characters not burdened with guilt and amnesia, but seems perfectly natural.

Mr. Russell also manages write about "knowledge" without rubbing our faces in it. The critical image of Beneath the Vaulted Hills and The Compass of the Soul is the nontechnical characters struggling to understand a vision of a nuclear attack. Desiring to avoid this result, Eldrich (and the majority of the mages) attempt to suppress the knowledge of magic, because they believe that magic is what will lead to this end. But Oppenheimer's genie is not so easily returned to the bottle, as recent events in Pakistan and India have demonstrated. So it is in Farrland. Mr. Russell has wisely left the images in the back of the reader's mind, rather than slapping us in the face with them. This vastly increases the power of the parable.

The irony of this theme is that modern technology might as well be magic to so many in this world. For example, what does it really take to build an atomic bomb? OK, given that parts list, how do we make the parts? How do we purify the plutonium or uranium (we'll consider only "simple" fission devices)? How do we actually work with these things so we don't kill ourselves? Then, how do we deliver the bomb where and when we want it? Or, closer to home, can you describe the complete process—from raw material to finished product—that went into producing the CPU through which you're reading these words now?

Neither Erasmus Flattery nor Tristam Flattery—the respective protagonists of the two pairs of books in this sequence—reaches these questions. But they're lurking under everything they do. And, if Mr. Russell gets us to think about the questions, he's done very well indeed.

Overall rating: 4 stars
This is really a multilevel novel in a multilevel series. It succeeds on both the "story" level and the "theme" level. Go ahead and enjoy it either way.

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