Moldy Fantasy: Red Moon and Black Mountain
Shortly before Christmas, Mrs. Pep developed a sudden interest in The Lord of the Rings. I got her the first DVD as a present, then the second and third as we powered through the trilogy on consecutive nights. This fired in me a long dormant craving for similar high fantasy, complete with prophecies, world-threatening evil, epic battles, and other trappings of Tolkien-esque stuff. I looked up a certain knock-off that I read in my youth, which shall remain un-named except to say that the remembered phrase “doughty Warrows” quickly turned it up, and was led through related posts to an article about the heretofore unknown Red Moon and Black Mountain. Intrigued, I checked the library, found an available copy, and added the slim volume to my pile.
I hope that the gentle hostess of the 2013 Vintage Sci-Fi Not-a-challenge will forgive the blatant trespass of high fantasy into her project, because this is definitely vintage. It also appears to have slipped into obscurity, despite being a prize-winning book in the early 1970s. Joy Chant has only written three other novels, leaving her work more or less unknown to the new generation of fantasy readers. Those that know the book seem to feel quite strongly about it though, with most reviews I found saying things like, “I loved this book as a child and it still holds its magic today.” I came to it in the context of Tolkien rip-offs, so my first impression was somewhat different. While I entered with slightly different expectations than its biggest fans may have held, that goes with most of fantasy for me and should be taken as a given. This is in many ways the quintessential Moldy Fantasy addition.
A certain amount of plot summary is necessary before diving into comparisons. Three English kids, Oliver, Nicholas, and Penelope, are magically transported into another world. They are split up, each finding themselves a part of the usual cataclysmic battle between good and evil. We get right to it, with battling eagles, spells of eternal winter, princesses held captive in towers, and noble horsemen on the plains. Oliver grows to be a man and a valiant warrior. The other two meet magical types and have adventures. After awhile, the forces of good gather in a white walled city to fend off the armies of the Evil Wizard. Select portions of the Battle of Pelennor Fields are reenacted. I won’t spoil the ending by revealing if Good ultimately triumphs over Evil.
There is a definite whiff of Middle Earth here, with appearances by Tom Bombadil, Arwen, Sauron, Minases Morgul and Tirith, and to an extent Rohan. To me though, it felt even closer to another iconic fantasy creation, Narnia. By shipping in three heroic children from contemporary England, Chant seems to be attempting a world with the depth of Middle Earth inside the framework C.S. Lewis used for his books. To her credit though, I think Chant ultimately makes the world her own. The horse people in particular are given a much bigger stage and consequently separate themselves from their literary forbears. Other parts have become fantasy convention enough to gloss over, especially great white cities, elves (or whatever passes for them), prophecies, and much more. It’s hard to know what is original and what is borrowed when tropes have progressed as much as they have.
In some ways, I am less interested in what this book stole than what was later stolen. If Weis and Hickman didn’t read this and make off with the concept of multiple, different colored moons affecting magic, I will eat my hat. Dragonlance adds a moon to better fit in with the D&D alignment system, but everything else is identical. I didn’t really notice anything else egregious, just the same tropes and conventions that snake their way through most fantasy. The scene where the Earth Mother walks through the battlefield, feet sinking into the ground and leaving new life in their wake gave me a massive flashback to Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, though I have no idea if they are actually related. Certainly this is a book that lends itself to a Miyazaki production.
Not all is well of course, and I would be remiss if I didn’t grumble a little. The biggest complaint I have with the book is the combination of pacing and length. I have read that Chant built this world over years and years of personal imagining and storytelling; this is apparent from the start. The challenge for an author in this case is to somehow reveal the details and background while keeping the story moving along, a challenge exacerbated by word count limitations of the pre-doorstop fantasy era. Here, the author gives herself a couple hundred pages to lay out the world, bring our English children up to speed, establish the bona fides of the diabolical nemesis, and set up a world altering conflict. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t always work. There are going to be trade offs when space is so limited, in this case the high drama of the conflict gets sacrificed in favor of world building. At the end of the book, we know a lot about the world and how it works, but the threat from the head bad dude never really feels urgent. There is much talk of how awful it would be if Good were to lose, but Good never loses anything, even its car keys.
Beyond this, I only have quibbles. Things are a bit overwrought, which is to be expected of the genre. There is a lot of dialog that would make me giggle were I to read aloud to my children. Chant has an odd hangup with Christianity throughout the book. Satan makes a cameo and Oliver displays an inexplainable loyalty to a religion with a fervor that far outstrips his connections with Merry Olde England. I’m not sure what the point of this is, since it is never shown as admirable per se, or even relevant, what with the other gods roaming about. I bring this up not as a glaring issue, just something that knocked me out of the story every time it popped up. The Tolkien flashbacks were the only other bits I found jarring, difficult as they are to ignore.
On the other hand, I remember reading the last twenty pages or so and thinking, “whatever faults I may find with the rest, this ending makes me forget them.” Something in the resolution feels right in a way that many books fail to achieve. Had I read this book at the impressionable age of twelve, I’m sure it would have bowled me over. It probably would have bowled me over now with an extra hundred pages to work with, a greater willingness to step away from God and Tolkien, and a more convincing threat from the dark forces. The characters and societies that get their chance in the narrative shine, but the spotlight is a bit uneven. Altogether though, Red Moon rises above its flaws and promises more and better goodies in the books that follow. Epic fantasy types should definitely seek this out, as well as anyone curious about how the genre has developed.
Rating: The 1970 Uruguay squad. They ended up fourth in one of the greatest World Cup tournaments ever, but remain overshadowed by Pele & Co. and largely forgotten.