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Book Review: Speak to the Devil by Dave Duncan

Genre: Historical Fantasy
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Tor Books; 1 edition
Publication Date: May 25, 2010
ISBN-10: 0765323478
ISBN-13: 978-0765323477
Author Website: Dave Duncan

Speak to the Devil is prolific author Dave Duncan’s latest historical fantasy. Set in Eastern Europe at the end of the age of chivalry and the beginning of gunpowder based warfare, the story follows two men, brothers, who are sent by their king (and the cardinal who really rules the country) to defend the strategic Castle Gallant from the invading Wends. Anton, the elder, is a tall, fearsome warrior who is given the title and lordship of the castle. And there is his brother, Wulf, a young man serving as Anton’s varlet who hides a terrible secret – he is a sorcerer. In this kingdom of Catholics, to practice sorcery is to speak to the devil, but it is this very skill – mistakenly applied to Anton – which gets the Magnus brothers sent to the border in the first place. (Their other 3 brothers do feature in the story as well, though they are not a large part of the perspective of the novel.)

Though initially the protagonist of the story appears to be Anton, it soon becomes clear that it is Wulf who really drives the plot. When Wulf practices sorcery, there is a terrible price that must be paid, and he must balance that receiving that pain against his desire to assist his brother in defending the castle. This balancing act is only exacerbated by the fact that Wulf and Anton pay court to the same woman.

The story of Speak to the Devil moves quickly and with agility. Duncan dives right in, not wasting words on character building at the front end, preferring to do that as he goes along. Careful attention to historical details such as costume and technology give this fiction a ring of truth. However, that feeling of authenticity is lessened by Duncan’s repeated use of modern idioms and speech patterns in the dialogue and occasionally in exposition. But at the same time, the dialogue is also what makes the story move so quickly, as the reader will be at ease with the tale, and are not forced to deal with the complex speech patterns that other fantasy authors sometimes use to make their work seem more otherworldly.

The plot is almost entirely character driven. Through the eyes of Anton, Wulf and their romantic ideal Madlenka, we see them prepare the defense of Castle Gallant against the new cannon technology of the Wends, something they do not themselves have in as much abundance. But the real thrust of the story is the love triangle between Anton, Wulf and Madlenka and Wulf’s need to know whether his sorceries are really a product of the devil, or a gift from the saints he requests power from.

The clerical style of the magic is interesting, and fitting for the setting. Rather than have a magic system outside or against of the beliefs of the age, Duncan has chosen to make it part of them, heightening the difficult Wulf has in deciding whether he speaks to the devil or not, and thereby the suspense of the novel as a whole. Wulf must request the power from the two saints he speaks to, and there is no guarantee they will provide what he requests. It is a simple, elegant magic system that allows Duncan to put the sorcerous abilities of Wulf to use in a variety of ways without having to write a complex and distracting set of rules. The fact that the magic is clerical in nature also differentiates the story from others of its ilk.

The novel does end on a cliffhanger, with some of the issues (especially the war with the Wends) left unresolved, so potential readers should note that reading this novel means reading more in the future. Readers may also find that the story is too simplistic, too easygoing in manner. It is not high fantasy, nor is it sword and sorcery, but something in between. The plot is not highly complex, nor is it just a series of battles fought and won. The characters are simply motivated, but those motivations are powerful. Speak to the Devil is a story of familial love, betrayal and of magic at war with belief.