In “Advanced Readings in D&D,” Tor.com writers Tim Callahan and Mordicai Knode take a look at Gary Gygax’s favorite authors and reread one per week, in an effort to explore the origins of Dungeons & Dragons and see which of these sometimes-famous, sometimes-obscure authors are worth rereading today. Sometimes the posts will be conversations, while other times they will be solo reflections, but one thing is guaranteed: Appendix N will be written about, along with dungeons, and maybe dragons, and probably wizards, and sometimes robots, and, if you’re up for it, even more.
This week, Fletcher Pratt’s Blue Star is on the menu, as Mordicai and Tim look into a story about witches and worldbuilding.
Tim Callahan: Fletcher Pratt’s Blue Star begins with three guys named Penfield, Hodge, and McCall theorizing about a society developed upon magic—witchcraft, more specifically—instead of science. And then the whole book is a high-falutin’ romance set against a complex political system in which magic is forbidden.
It’s a love story with a well-developed setting and a confident depiction of a fantasy world that’s bound by many of the social and political and religious rules as our own. It’s a courtly melodrama in an alternate realm.
It reads like an Alexandre Dumas novel with all the action scenes removed and replaced by more descriptions of the window dressings. I struggled to make it through this tedious, tedious, tedious book. (It’s by one of the co-authors of The Carnellian Cube but I didn’t hold that against him, even though I probably should have. We’ve been Pratted again!)
Mordicai Knode: I really liked it! But then I like boring, tedious worldbuilding. That is my jam, my whole scene; it is a running joke. I’m the guy who was like “you know, Anathem could have really used another 1000 pages about the soap opera and melodrama inside of a secular monastery.” That said, once you have a detour to another country just to see the sights before returning home, it does get a little...gratuitous. So I see your point.
The thing that really got me is...well, part a conversation people have about A Song of Ice and Fire. Which is to say: is the misogyny in the story authorial, or is it an implicit critique of patriarchy? The Blue Star contains a lot of oppression and assault. In fact, I would say that the relationship between the two protagonists is created by...well, for lack of a better term, date rape. Sexual coercion is perhaps the most dominant theme in Lalette Asterhax’s story.
For me, I find the whole idea of witchcraft and the blue gem to be a really great central conceit. I don’t think the book indulges in it enough; I want more witchcraft, I want more telepathy! The point of building a cool, cohesive world is that then you can use your supernatural elements without them ruining the suspension of disbelief, right? Sadly the book sort of falls out from that, and is instead a mix of a travelogue and a meditation on power and sex. Or not; I’m not sure if the politics of sex and violence in the book are mindful or more thoughtless sexism.
TC: I’m not going to be the guy who tries to delve into authorial intent and assume I can ferret out what some guy thought as he was writing some book over sixty years ago, so whatever I say here is based purely on the effect the novel has on its readers—or, more specifically on this one reader called me—but Blue Star seems like a book that’s supposed to be forward thinking and possibly even pseudo-feminist in its approach except Fletcher Pratt can’t get out of his own way. Based on this book and the terribleness of Carnellian Cube, I imagine Pratt to be the kind of guy that propounds about the flaws of society at a dinner party and then spends the rest of the evening making passive aggressive sexist jokes to everyone who walks by. Blue Star seems like a set up to explore something about politics and gender and gender politics but then where does the book go with those issues? It shows an oppressed matriarchy? That’s it?
And it doesn’t even do it in a way that’s interesting. As you say, there’s not enough witchcraft. Not enough telepathy.
For a book that replaces technology with magic, there’s just not enough magic. It’s dull. Like a lecture. From that guy who sexually harasses the waitress but then complains about the social constraints of the glass ceiling in the workplace. Oh, that Fletcher Pratt!
MK: That is an entirely believable depiction you’ve painted. Okay, well, let’s keep this debate going! Another thing that I think this book succeeds in—similarly to what we talked about with Carnellian Cube—is in worldbuilding, which for a Dungeon Master is pretty crucial. Carnellian Cube is sort of a “think quick about this toss-away clan of monsters” primer, you know? Take a big idea, throw it at the wall, see what sticks. The Blue Star is a textbook on how to create a campaign setting. Heck, the frame story of the three old white dudes makes it explicit. Sit down, think about what you are changing, and think about how it would play out. Except, like you say...he doesn’t let it play out. Pratt sets up the dominoes, and they are cool dominoes, right? Witchcraft and telepathy? The Great Wedding? Weird religions and conspiratorial skullduggery? Did I mention witchcraft?
Then he just...doesn’t do anything with them. Lalette—who, can I just say, has the best name? Lalette Asterhax? Awesome!—is too overwrought to use it and Rodvard is just a piece of garbage. Rarely have I hated a protagonist as much as Rodvard Bergelin. At least Cugel the Clever is a rogue, and pretty much fully wicked. But Rodvard...am I supposed to sympathize with this rapist? I mean, let’s call a spade a spade; he rapes her. She says no, she fights, and he forces himself on her. Her giving up isn’t consent. The back copy says he was ordered to “seduce the saucy witch-maiden” but that isn’t what “seduction” is. So yeah, no, he rapes her to take the power of the eponymous Blue Star, and then proceeds to use her and coerce her. And of course they end up together. Because barf.
That said, I still think the central premise is pretty neat.
TC: Just to clarify—is the central premise you’re referring to something like this: “A fantasy world in which magic has replaced technology, but the patriarchy has attempted to suppress and exploit it instead of allowing it to flourish?” Because that’s the essence of the premise upon which the world is built, as I understand it, and while that may be interesting, it’s just the foundation. What’s built upon it is endlessly tedious and unpleasant and really just repetitive.
It’s like Fletcher Pratt did a nice job with the masonry, but when he built the house, he put a bunch of rooms on top of one another that don’t have any flow and they are also overly ornate and have velvet pictures of animals and a golden bathroom with red curtains and a pool table with clear glass balls and...now I’m just describing a hideous house I once visited, but Blue Star is that hideous house in narrative form. Pratt is an interior designer who wants to be an architect, but he has bad taste lacks a sense of proportion.
As a world-builder, he’s pretty bad at the building part.
MK: Which I guess is why my mind drifts to George R. R. Martin, who has sexual brutality in his books, but doesn’t romanticize it. Though I guess you could look at Drogo and Dany and disagree with me, especially since everyone in the Song of Ice and Fire is supposed to be, like, thirteen. But I’m getting off track; you are right that he almost purposefully makes a lot of boring choices. Given the option of super sweet witchcraft or banal repression, he’ll take the latter, every time. It is a let-down; I want to see the witches in full effect! You know, that is exactly what I want, I want the Boudica, a pagan witch-queen. Not for nothing is Iggwilv my favorite Dungeons and Dragons personality!
I disagree with your analogy. I think the foundation and the masonry is well crafted, but the actual building itself is...just banal. Like he laid out the blueprints for a phenomenal palace, but ran out of funding halfway and ended up with a squat and ugly ranch-style house. Which maybe is why it tickles the Dungeon Master in me. I could take the rules of his universe—the interwoven relationship between sex, fidelity and magic on one hand, the politics of revolution, patriarchy and theocracy—and make up a pretty good story for a group of players. Spoiler alert, the story would probably have a “barbarian” sorceress Genghis Khan type.
TC: Yeah, I really let my analogy get away from itself. Banality is the word. And that’s what’s so frustrating—that it reads like Pratt imposes some kind of realistic aesthetic on a world that he’s built that could have so much splendor. It could have great tragedies and magnificent triumphs, but instead it’s just...nothing. Perhaps that’s part of his thinking behind Blue Star, that the oppression in the world keeps the sense of wonder suppressed. But that makes for a book like this, which is not one I’d ever want to recommend to anyone.