Next in my reread of Susan Dexter was the first book she published, the first book in The Winter King’s War, the Tristan trilogy, Ring of Allaire from 1981. It felt like I hadn’t read the book since the first time, probably in the early 80’s; I remembered a few random bits from the three books – Jehan, Crewzel, the rings, Thomas, Minstrel, a couple of plot points – so it was almost as if new.
The basic structure of the story – of Allaire, and of the trilogy as a whole – is almost formulaic. A young man (19, I believe), orphaned very young and raised by, apprenticed to a wizard, is set on a huge quest even though he is not the most … ept of lads. He finds himself shoved into a destiny he never would have imagined, and for which would never assume himself capable. But, in the classic tradition, there’s no one else to do it: he is it. The first quest turns into a series of quests, which lead to one great Quest, to in effect save the world, with a wildly assorted group of traveling companions.
That right there could describe a great many fantasy novels. But that’s where these books and formula part company. Tristan, the apprentice, should be cookie cutter: he’s the young proto-magician who is called upon to be a hero, who can’t even pull off a simple spell without disaster. But Tristan ranks high among my favorite fictional characters. The majority of the three books use his point of view, and he’s an excellent traveling companion. For all his faults – and he does have faults – he also ranks high among the fictional characters I would like to meet. He is selfless in several ways; he is embarrassed by his many failures and fumbles and accidents but doesn’t let that keep him from making efforts, and it doesn’t distance him from others. He tries, he fails, he grits his teeth and picks himself up and moves on. And, too, he’s big-hearted; his loyalty, once given, is solid.
He and his master Blais live quietly apart from a village by the sea in the east of Calandra, and muddle along quite well, making their living with love philtres and minor weather witchings. There’s much call for the latter, because Calandra – and beyond – has for centuries been more and more under the spell of Nímir. No one knows exactly who or what Nímir is, but he’s evil, and powerful, and bent on – to inappropriately reference C.S. Lewis – making it always winter and never Christmas. Kind of like this winter, only to the point where if spring is seen it’s brief and feeble.
There is a prophecy that Nímir can be defeated by a team made up of a wizard, the true heir to the throne of Calandra (which seat has been vacant for a very long time), and Valadan, the war-horse of Esdragon, a stallion who is said to have been sired by the wind and is effectively immortal. He is magic. And he’s gone. But Blais, as it turns out, has been researching the prophecies for most of his life, and must have come across something, because Nímir kills him one fine afternoon while his apprentice is out. Tristan comes home to find his master vanished, and only a message and a spell left behind, a spell which puts him on the path to find Valadan.
With him from the cottage go Thomas, a cat who scorns the title of familiar, and who is another of my favorite characters; and Minstrel, the eagle-hearted canary who refuses to be left behind simply because he is small and fragile.
Bringing the heir into the quest is easier than finding the war-horse – Valadan being found in a situation which shouldn’t have seemed as bad as it did, to the point it actually makes me a little queasy. The heir is the gigantic and naturally martial Polassar, who does not take a great deal of convincing before he joins in on the journey into the Winterwaste to find and free the Princess Allaire of the Nine Rings. It is only once she is freed that the heir can take the throne of Crogen and have a hope of beating Winter. Problem is, I believe it was 6,003 wizards and uncounted heroes have attempted the quest – and failed – and died. They never had Valadan, of course, and not everyone who went in was or had with him a valid heir – but nobody said having the full complement guarantees victory.
The only drawback I can think of with Allaire is that one part of the adventure feels rather abridged. Considering the danger of it all – 6,003 + wizards, was it? – it seemed like only a prologue to the second half of the book. Because after all Allaire has Nine Rings, but ten fingers. It wasn’t easy – but there didn’t seem to be all the insurmountable obstacles one might expect.
(Reading about Nímir’s influence on the land has had an eerie resonance given our ridiculous weather. I wish I could go look for a war-horse and a lost princess and a sword, and MAKE IT STOP.)