It was Christopher Buehlman’s Those Across the River that triggered my Eighties Horror reread last summer; the novel had similarities to some fondly-remembered horror novels from my teens, especially those by Stephen King and Peter Straub, and I wanted to take a closer look. I was excited, then, when I heard Buehlman was giving historical fantasy another go. As the Doctor has been wont to say lately, “someone’s been peeking at my Christmas list!”
Between Two Fires takes place in medieval France. It’s a troubled place: down in Hell, Lucifer and his minions have come to suspect that God isn’t watching over humanity anymore, and they decide to test the hypothesis. They try out a little famine and war to start with, and the results are promising, so in 1348 they unleash the bubonic plague. People start to die, society crumbles and with all their hopes confirmed, the demons launch an attack on Heaven. Why not? As far as they can tell, nobody’s lifting a wingtip to stop them.
This may not be the case, though. Out in the countryside of Normandy something is whispering to a girl named Delphine. The voice sends her off on a dangerous errand – to ask four bandits, who’ve already killed and eaten her donkey, to help her bury her father. It’s a mission that can’t turn out anything but badly for the girl, but go she does, and by a miraculous stroke of luck one of the four has just then had it with their leader’s penchant for raping every innocent young thing they come across.
Soon three of the bandits are dead and not lamented, and the girl has decided that their killer, an excommunicated knight named Thomas de Givras, should accompany her on the next certain-death mission served up by her voices.
Between Two Fires sends Thomas and Delphine—along with a gay alcoholic priest, Père Matthieu—through the plague-ravaged countryside, to a Paris filled with corpses and horrors, and then on to Avignon, the final destination chosen by the girl’s alleged angels. It goes without saying that their road is filled with dangers. What is more striking is the profane and utterly disturbing nature of the hazards this trio faces.
Buehlman makes France, as it is overrun by disease and demons alike, a sheerly awful place. There can be little doubt that Hell is making Europe over in its own image. What makes this effect all the more potent is how immersed the reader becomes in the worldview and mindset of its medieval Christian characters. The Church is central to their life, and in many ways it is the demons’ primary target.
The author’s touch in making the holy obscene is hair-raising. Even though it is apparent that Delphine probably constitutes some kind of heavenly response to the crisis, the forces opposing her seem truly mighty. Allies for the trio appear but rarely, and are generally starving, disease-ridden, with little power to assist them and a tendency to die horribly and soon.
Complicating things further is the fact that it isn’t enough that they should just go to Avignon as ordered, starving all the way: as the journey wears on it becomes clear they have to travel in or arrive at something akin to a state of grace. Thomas, though he’s indisputably a killing machine, is forbidden by the girl to commit murder, even in self-defence. The rule, fortunately, doesn’t apply to the monsters and walking dead who come after them, but France is in chaos: there are brigands, river pirates and even people so desperately hungry they’d kill another human being for food. Not to mention that Thomas set out on this road, initially, because he’s looking for revenge: there’s at least one man, somewhere in France, that he’d really like to kill.
Buehlman’s writing was already very strong in Those Across the River. In Between Two Fires, his prose has become just a bit better: more supple, more evocative, and packed with dialogue so hilarious, in points, that laughing out loud has a deliciously naughty thrill to it – the story in this novel is so grim that having fun reading it feels sacrilegious. This is less surprising when one remembers that the author also performs stand-up comedy in the persona of Christophe the Insultor. He knows his history, and he knows too that our collective past is full of real-world terrors every bit as horrific as anything you’ll find on True Blood.
And so you may not be happy, exactly, if you let Buehlman lure you across France with Delphine and Thomas, if you face with them the horrors unleashed by Hell upon a population that is left to question whether some great sin of theirs has earned all this wrath and punishment. But you will, indisputably, feel as though you have gone on the journey. In this book the reader takes every step along with its flawed and remarkable characters as they make their slow and frightened way to Avignon to see if they can save what remains of humanity… and possibly their own souls, too.
A.M. Dellamonica has two novelettes up here on Tor.com, as well as a popular Buffy Rewatch series. Her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies,’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd,” the first of a series of stories called The Gales.