The Battle of Four Armies: Carrie Vaughn’s Questland

Carrie Vaughn’s Questland is a day-after-tomorrow tale of a fantasy theme park gone very wrong.

Insula Mirabilis (literally, Wonderful Island) off the coast of Washington State is the pet project of billionaire Harris Lang. It’s going to be the ultimately geeky fantasy theme park once it is complete—immersing visitors in an experience that would put Westworld to shame. But when the island puts up a force field from the inside and a coast guard cutter hits it and loses all hands, things get real. Lang needs to get a team in and shut down the field and regain control of the island. 

Enter Addie Cox. Teacher, survivor of a mass shooting at a school, and a deep geek who can recite the writing on the One Ring in the Black Speech. She is the perfect person to act as cultural guide and “interpreter” for a group of handpicked mercenaries to take back control of an island that might literally be full of robotic dragons. There is one additional touch, too that makes her the perfect candidate: Dominic Brand, lead designer of the island, and likely agent of all this, is her ex.

And so we enter Questland.

The writing style is exactly what fans of Vaughn’s writing have come to expect, on all levels. It’s been a number of years since I’ve read Vaughn’s Kitty Norville novels, but the familiarity with her easy and immersive style was quick and very welcome. Her previous novels may have had geeky references, and this novel doesn’t lean on those so much as making them a supporting pillar of the plot, characters, setting and writing. This is a novel that shows how a commercialized, mainstream ultra-immersive theme park experience can and would meet the beating heart of geekdom. How well, and how badly those forces would interact is a lot of how this novel runs, and Vaughn has clearly spent a lot of time on the idea.

As our point of view character, Cox is definitely geared as a character who is, to deep fans of fantasy, firmly, “one of us”. She’s a teacher who encourages her student in his paper aligning Pokemon with Moby Dick and has a lucky d20 in her pocket. She has the skills to figure out the invented fantasy realm that the mercenaries that are her escorts are much less familiar with. The novel does slip a bit here, I feel, the mercenaries feel a little more of an older generation, and a little more mundane than I would have expected. That just makes Cox all the more valuable, because this IS a situation and problem that guns can’t always solve (although the power and problem of guns are treated like dread magic weapons)

But for that, Vaughn has Cox grounded. She’s the bard, and one without combat skills at all. PTSD from her past is a real disability on her part, one that the novel brings up and then uses as a facet, but not the defining one of her character. But it informs her character and her actions throughout the novel. It gives not only Cox dimension, but also her relations with the rest of her team, and how she approaches the challenges and problems found when landing on the island. It also turns out that Cox is known by reputation to the denizens of the island, and Cox trying to deal with that even before she meets Brand is delightful character work as well.

The novel gives us a whirlwind tour of the three realms: the Realms of Sword, Shield and Arrow. Not least for reasons of copyright and rights in the book itself, but also within the world of the novel, Insula Mirabilis attempts to create a fantasy world and landscape from public domain and invented fantasy materials rather than trying to precisely be “Tolkienland”. That said, the three realms definitely lean on existing properties or generic ideas from the same original materials  pretty heavily—elves, dwarves, King Arthur, Robin Hood, yes, but a lot of the plot revolves around trying to find the control for the central castle, the “One Ring”. The novel acknowledges that Insula Mirabilis does have a hurdle for visitors in that you are not visiting Rivendell, but rather “Riverhaven.”  

That said, what we do get is written to dive the reader in and wish that they, too, could visit Insula Mirabilis. The stuff might be “off the shelf” and invented for the book, but would you pay for a visit to such a technological fantasy wonderland? I know I would fail my Will Save. There we have not only the Westworld series but the original Westworld movie again. Humans want an immersive experience that feels real. For many of the people reading this, that can be accomplished through the words of a book. But not everyone can or does want to put in that effort, and not even readers always want to spend the effort  Sometimes, you JUST want the eye and ear candy, the sensorium brought right into your eyeballs and ears. Reading the book and following Cox’s travails is immersive, but wouldn’t you want to see Robin Hood’s camp for yourself? Or visit a dwarven hall? See a unicorn? Vaughn taps into that, with  her easy and page turning writing style, with delightful results. 

One thing that the novel does delightfully address, is that Cox might be a geek’s geek (and her companions do have a fear of her “turning native” and she fears that they might think she would) but she is always looking behind the curtain, and letting us look behind the curtain. This goes from discussions of how the control parameters of monsters work, both adversarial and the more friendly sorts, all the way to speculation and discovery as to how the island could work as a going concern. Who does the scut work to make the island, the game, if you will, run and run is something that Cox and thus Vaughn is interested in. For all of the glamour and bedazzlement that the island provides (run into a dragon! Explore a spider filled maze!), Vaughn keeps it grounded for her characters, and ultimately, for us. Yes, it is rather cool that Cox gets to eat at an elvish feast, but asking questions about who is washing up helps keep it real.

That said, one of the best sequences is the set piece at the end. The four armies, as it were, of the three realms, plus the mercenaries, are gathered (and very much at odds with one another) at the castle that is the “boss level” of the island and the defenses therein. One might consider that they constitute a fifth army of the conflict, if you squint. But the actual entry for Cox, and for Dominic (who has turned out to be running one of the realms, quelle surprise) is definitely Vaughn in full on game level mode. Sure, elements of the novel to this point, and the raison d’etre of including Cox (besides her tie to Dominic) is that including her on your team is like having Dr. Grant in a Dinosaur theme park, but the gamification elements of the whole island come together, here. 

Finally, the utter ‘20 minutes from now’ plausibility of Insula Mirabilis and its wonders is what might make this somewhat more of a techno thriller than science fiction qua science fiction. There is some pretty neat extrapolated tech that make the wonders (and dangers—c.f. the force field) of the island come to life. None of it seems out of the realm of possibility and there is a sensibility to the tech that makes me think of the similarity in tech of Star Trek to some of the subsequent designs and look and feel of flip phones, and later, tablet computers. Here, the cues are from fantasy works, and what fantasy fan wouldn’t want a ring of power as a control device ? The novel is also willing to ask questions about what the technology and R&D poured into the island might be able to be used for, outside of it, and not always to good ends. Vaughn has pulled out a lot of stops in considering just what the consequences, from the personal to the technological, of 

Questland charmed and ensorcelled me, and while I left the island, I recognized that the book stands alone, a complete and satisfyingly immersive story complete in a volume. That, too, is magic. 

Questland is available from John Joseph Adams/Mariner Books.

An ex-pat New Yorker living in Minnesota, Paul Weimer has been reading sci-fi and fantasy for over 30 years. An avid and enthusiastic amateur photographer, blogger and podcaster, Paul primarily contributes to the Skiffy and Fanty Show as blogger and podcaster, and the SFF Audio podcast. If you’ve spent any time reading about SFF online, you’ve probably read one of his blog comments or tweets (he’s @PrinceJvstin).

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