by Timothy Lane 1/7/18
This was the last work by the late SF author H. Beam Piper (though not the last to appear), being printed the year after he committed suicide. It started as a story in his future history, but editor John W. Campbell suggested he put it in a different series, the Paratime series (a set of alternate histories in a multiverse policed by the Paratime Police from a single time-line). The first paratime story, “He Walked Around the Horses”, dealt with the real-life disappearance in Prussia of British diplomat Benjamin Bathurst, and details what happened to him after his disappearance.
Something similar happens here. Pennsylvania state policeman Calvin Morrison is on stakeout to collar a criminal when he finds himself in a strange vehicle, shoots the occupants (who was about to shoot him), and then finds himself in a very different Pennsylvania. He finds a farmhouse and gets a meal (though he’s unable to communicate with the family), and proceeds to earn his meal when some raiders come by and he shoots several with his gun. Then another group comes along, and he gets shot and wounded by their leader, a woman.
Calvin finds himself in the local equivalent of a hospital, and gets the chance to learn the language, and the local geography. He also meets the woman who had (accidentally, it turns out — in a melee like that, who knows whether a stranger is friend or foe?) shot him — Princess Rylla, only child of Prince Ptosphes of the doomed state of Hostigos. It seems that in this world a church dedicated to the god Styphon is out to get them because Styphon’s House has a monopoly on gunpowder, and wanted Hostigos’s sulfur springs. When Ptosphes said no, Styphon’s House prompted Prince Gormoth of neighboring Nostor to attack them.
But Calvin, who had been a soldier in Korea and maintained a very strong interest in military history, knows how to make gunpowder — and proceeds to start doing so. (And his proportions of the 3 ingredients make for a better product to boot.) He also redesigns some of the weapons and reorganizes the army, making it a lot more modern than those of the other states (or that of their very nominal overlord, Great King Kaiphronos of Hos-Harphax).
Meanwhile, the Paratime Police are taking an interest, since their greatest concern is protecting the paratime secret, and Calvin will (and does) more or less figure it out. Their top agent, Verkan Vall, decides that their secret is safe — Calvin knows it, but has provided a cover story that will prevent anyone else from doing so. He then leads a research, which enables him to help Kalvan out as a soldier (and a very good one), helped by his wife Dalla Hadron.
Calvin — now known as Lord Kalvan — proceeds to grab a Nostorian fortress. paroling its garrison and ransoming its commander, Count Pheblon. Then, finally, comes the Nostorian invasion. Lord Kalvan basically plans another Brice’s Crossroads and pulls it off, crushing the Nostorian army. He then invades Nostor and plunders it, which his troops celebrate with a song, “Marching Through Nostor” (probably based on “Marching Through Georgia”).
Gormoth decides to replace his commander with Count Pheblon, but first he must pay his ransom — and he no longer has the money to do it. Skranga, who has been teaching him how to make gunpowder on his own (he learned it from working in Kalvan’s mill — the latter wants the secret spread all over to help break up Styphon’s House), points out that he can get all he needs, and more — at Styphon’s temple. But this leads to a chaotic civil war in Gormoth.
Styphon’s House is dismayed, but their leader quickly works up a new plan — to attack Hostigos with another pair of neighbors, Sask (under Prince Sarrask) and Beshta (under Prince Balthar). Beshta is slow to act, so only Sask initially invades, and Lord Kalvan ends up fighting another battle, this one based on the battle of Barnet in the Wars of the Roses. Sarrask. unlike Gormoth, is also captured (by Rylla and Dalla), as well as an Archpriest of Styphon with chests full of gold. Kalvan persuades Sarrask to join them in what becomes the High Kingdom of Hos-Hostigos, with Kalvan as high king. (He had initially proposed Ptosphes, but the latter though the mysterious Kalvan would be a more acceptable choice to the other princes.) And he also plans an auto-da-fé of priests of Styphon (including those in their temple in Sask).
As it happens, the planned punishment (blowing the priests out of cannons, as the British did at the end of the 1859 sepoy mutiny) — the archpriest prefers to deny Styphon instead. Hos-Hostigos, which at first consists of Hostigos, Sask, and Beshta begins to expand as other princes find it convenient to seize their temples of Styphon and then jin with the god’s new enemy. After Gormoth is conveniently killed, Count Pheblon sends Skranga (whom Gormoth had made a duke) to negotiate his way into the next great kingdom. Great King Kalvan creates a charter for the new great kingdom — something that sounds less like the Magna Charta and more like something the Sun-King would have liked.
And so things stand as the book ends. John F. Carr has written several sequels, though one may wonder how well they match what Piper had in mind. This is an excellent work, written with a strong knowledge of history and adding occasional humor (but not enough to turn this into a comedy). At one point, a Paratimer notes how well things have worked out for Kalvan — he’s even married a beautiful princess (Rylla), and notes that such an outcome has virtually disappeared even in fairy tails in Calvin Morrison’s time. (Piper was an aheist, but otherwise a very traditionalist conservative.) I recommend this book very highly.
Timothy Lane writes from Louisville, Kentucky and publishes the FOSFAX fanzine.
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