So, my bestie Laura tagged me in a “what books do you love” meme over on the Facebook, and I didn’t have especially good ideas for my Friday post, so I was working on doing that for this little-read venture. One of the books I wanted to talk about was the first in the Guardian of the Flames series by Joel Rosenberg,1 but I couldn’t remember its title. Off to the Google I went. Which is how I discovered that Rosenberg died two years ago.
The thing about the Guardian of the Flames series that was both lovely and frustrating was that it hooked me with what seemed like a bit of a Mary Sue concept, then managed to take it both entirely seriously and in directions fairly unexpected.
The high concept of the series is that a group of Dungeons & Dragons type players are thrown into the bodies of their characters and the world of the game. It sounds like the cheeseball 80’s cartoon (which I love for entirely different reasons), but I found the whole thing engaging for Rosenberg’s continued tendency to un-magic his world.
Some of this was the kind of grimy add ons that aren’t entirely unexpected: pointing out, for example, that most commoners in medieval settings would have no formal education, so a bunch of college students find themselves suddenly illiterate. Or noting the utter lack of things like dentistry. You know, the little details which flesh things out, but which escapist, fantasy gaming doesn’t usually concern itself with for obvious reasons.2
The other thing that Rosenberg does is take on the very notion of preferring elements of the fantastic. It starts in the first book, as a wizard character has to choose whether to keep his magic or save his friend’s life. No one will probably be surprised by the choice he makes. As it turns out, his engineering knowledge (he majored in it in “real world college”) becomes its own kind of magic in the medieval setting.
More importantly, this choice begins a recurring trend in the books, as characters are faced with big, magical power, and have to ultimately decide if it’s more important than the mundane. The end result, thematically, is a series which is firmly couched in magical fantasy while simultaneously working to undermine the power of magic and flash, making it clear that fireballs and floating globes of light and all these things which are amazing are ultimately unimportant. Or, at least, far less important than people.
It’s a move that takes some chutzpah. I mean, in a genre built around the flash and the sizzle,3 to use that to pull folks in and then say “you realize this is all a trick, right? That you don’t need this?” could backfire so very harshly, but I think Rosenberg pulls it off.
So, yeah. It’s more than worth the read, and even if I’m horribly late to knowing about it, I’m sad to discover the man who pulled off that particular magic trick won’t be pulling off any more.
1.I’d lost track of Rosenberg a while ago, when some casual Googling told me he and I probably had more than a few political differences. What I found was mild enough not to put me off, but I didn’t want to find worse and have him turn into my own, personal Orson Scott Card, so I stopped looking. His work resonates with me, and I wanted it to keep resonating. So, fair warning if you do your own searches.[back]
2. I’m sure there are folks who have wonderfully entertaining gaming sessions predicated on a quest to find The First Dentist for the party’s half-orc barbarian who’s broken a tusk (and now I kind of want to write that story), but in general, such details are usually hand-waved in favor of flashier options.[back]
3. Two genres, actually, since the high concept is clearly built to appeal not just to general fantasy fans, but to RPG folks, as well.[back]