Tuesday 14 December 2021

The Coramonde books by Brian Daley


Brian Daley (1947-1996) was a US SFF writer who co-authored much of his output with James Luceno (the pair using the Jack McKinney pseudonym), specialising in novelisations of TV series, e.g. Robotech. He did write some original fiction by himself, of which the Coramonde books are perhaps the best known. There are just two books in this series; The Doomfarers of Coramonde and The Starfollowers of Coramonde, published in 1977 and 1979 respectively. The two books effectively comprise one continuous story (with a brief pause for breath between them), totalling around 700 pages. This is a story of epic fantasy, comparable with the work of current authors Mark Lawrence and Michael J Sullivan, but with an interesting additional twist - it is possible for people to travel from Earth to the land of Coramonde. This has the usual medieval castle-based society plus magic.

The first part of the book follows the life of Springbuck, a prince of Coramonde who should by rights inherit the throne recently vacated by his late father. However, there is another contender; Strongblade, his younger half-brother, son of the late king's second wife.  A challenge is being arranged, but Springbuck is well aware that he stands no chance of beating Strongblade. He goes on the run, and meets up with a small group of people who are opposed to Strongblade. Among them is a pair of wizards, brother and sister, plus a strange man who wears on his head a frame holding pieces of glass, through which he can see. He also has a curiously shaped metal and wood stick which he calls a "rifle". The man is Van Duyn, a maverick scientist from Earth, who has found a way to travel between worlds involving a mixture of magic and science.   

The group is in trouble, faced with both physical and magical attack (the latter by a powerful wizard called Yardiff Bey, who summons a dragon), so Van Duyn and the wizards call for  help from Earth - and it arrives in the form of an Armoured Personnel Carrier and its crew led by Gil MacDonald, lifted directly from combat in the Vietnam War. The battle between the APC and the dragon is my favourite scene! The group are soon in even more trouble, as the female wizard is captured by Bey; once more, the APC comes to the rescue, right to the Gates of Hell. The APC can't stay for long as most of the crew want to return home (and it would be running out of fuel and ammunition anyway), but Gil has nothing much to return to except a lowly job in a supermarket, so after paying a brief return visit to Earth, he decides to move permanently to Coramonde and the main focus of the story switches from Springbuck to Gil. The story develops into the traditional good vs evil quest, with both sides locked in a protracted and titanic contest, both physical and magical. The climax of the story, with our assorted group of heroes tackling the enemy fortress, is reminiscent of the finale of The Lord of the Rings, but retains its own distinctive flavour. The book covers include praise from Poul Anderson and Gordon R Dickson.

A few general comments on the Coramonde stories: Daley enjoyed playing with language, digging up obscure words and also including quotes from literature (mostly genuine but some invented) at the beginning of chapters. A noticeable element is the very strong ring of authenticity in his descriptions of the battling APC and its crew. I was not at all surprised when checking his biog to find that Daley joined the US Army when a young man and spent a year serving in Vietnam - he was obviously very familiar with APCs and the weaponry they carried!

He also tackled some of the usual logical issues arising from this kind of story. For instance, when Gil wondered how he was able to understand the language of Coramonde it is explained  by Van Duyn as a side-effect of the magic used in transferring between worlds, a kind of mental reprogramming. However, that has consequences; on his return visit to Earth Gil collects a number of textbooks full of information which would be valuable on Coramonde, only to find that he could then no longer read them.

One unusual (for the time) feature of Daley's writing is that he included some terrific and very strong female characters, both wizards and warriors. He reinforced this in his invention of  the country of Glyffa, whose male rulers had become so extreme, regarding women merely as possessions with no legal status, that a powerful goddess had descended on them in fury and reversed the entire social structure, so that women were in charge of everything.

Finally, these stories could prompt all sorts of "what would you do?" Fun debates about what you would take with you on a one-way trip from Earth to Coramonde (to use yourself or perhaps as gifts). Firearms feature in the books (the author knew his stuff about these too), but only for a while as they run out of ammunition. Still, having a gun would provide a huge initial advantage as well as buying time to become proficient with swords etc. Choosing guns which use compact and lightweight ammunition, enabling more of it to be carried, would obviously be helpful, as long as you aren't planning to tackle an angry dragon! A good general-purpose knife would be useful, as would binoculars, a compass (assuming that the world of Coramonde has a similar magnetic field to the Earth), and one of those wind-up torches which require no batteries. Perhaps even more useful as gifts would be a selection of varifocal glasses (prompted by the author making Springbuck severely short-sighted). Then there is clothing: a lightweight layer system with a waterproof jacket and trousers plus a series of liners (including one incorporating knife-proof kevlar), and tough walking shoes for everyday use plus even tougher knee-length waterproof boots (off the main road, travel is via rutted and muddy tracks). That should about do it....