An Audiobook Review: In Service to Her Majesty, The Queen… of Faerie

The Compleat Enchanter: The Magical Misadventures of Harold Shea

By L. Sprague De Camp and Fletcher Pratt

Published by Audible Studios

Read by Ray Chase

The Book:

Here’s one of my favorite sets of fantasy stories. Harold Shea is a psychologist who, with various colleagues, travels to various parallel worlds where ancient mythology and fantasy stories are reality. They get there via symbolic logic, which I suppose works as well as any other mechanism in SF and fantasy. The concept is that by attuning your mind to the correct symbolic constructs you can transport yourself to the parallel world in which that sort of logic works… at least I think that’s the idea.

Shea’s first adventure is a solo trip to the world of Norse mythology sometime in the middle of Fimbulwinter, the three year-long harsh winter period leading up to the ultimate heat death of the universe known as Ragnarok. Unfortunately, he was trying to get to the Ireland of Queen Maeve so when he suddenly appears to accost Odin in the middle of this perpetual blizzard, he makes a somewhat poor first impression. However Odin allows Shea to follow him to an inn (it might be Valhalla or some other meeting place of the gods) where he soon meets Loki, Thor, Heimdall, Thialfi and various other familiar characters of Norse mythology.

Unwilling to subsist on a diet of all meat, all the time, Shea asks for a few vegetables and is instantly named “Turnip Harold,” doing nothing to increase his stature among this ultimate expression of “macho-dom.” Then, trying to establish himself as a great wizard, Shea tries to create fire by using a modern match, which is when he discovers that the modern inventions he brought with him don’t work in Valhalla because they simply do not fit in with that world. That does not stop him from trying to shoot the gun he also brought with him later on, but Shea is a slow study or maybe a creature of habit. He probably should have copped a clue from the fact he was unable to read the Boy Scout Handbook he brought with him…

Eventually, Shea, continuing to play a Cleveland Yankee in King Odin’s court, accidentally stumbles on to how magic actually works and manages to cast a few spells based on his knowledge of psychology. His knowledge of psychology probably ought not to work either, but then it would have been an even shorter story than it was. Anyway, after a really fun number adventures Shea finds himself banished back to his own world. I always thought he should have gone back to complete the story, but then it’s Ragnarok… we kind of know how it ends, don’t we?

Shea’s next adventure is in the company of his older college, Doctor Reed Chalmers, who, being older and wiser has better control of where they will go, and so they travel together to the land of Spencer’s Faerie Queene. There they meet the female knight, Britomart and Shea’s future wife Belphoebe, and an imitation of Florimell made of snow, whi Chalmers eventually makes real and marries. Chalmers decides he wants to regain his youth and so drags Shea off to join up with the evil sorcerer Busirane where he can learn more about how magic works. This puts Shea between the enemies of Faerie Queen Gloriana and Belphoebe. Along the way, they run into most of the main characters from Spencer’s work, including a fun encounter with the Blatant Beast, whom Shea defeats by reciting a bawdy poem.

There has been some complaint in this modern world that in spite of Belphoebe’s obvious strong self-reliance, Shea is always right in his stubborn pig-headedness, at least in the end and therefore Belphoebe falls for him. Well, yes, I have to admit it’s a bit old-fashioned in nature, but keep in mind this was written back in 1940.

In the next section, Chalmers, still working on his youth, has moved to the world of Orlando Furioso, Ariosto’s poem that was strongly influenced by The Faerie Queene. Indeed there are strongly related counterparts to many of Spencer’s characters, such as Bradamante, which is a slightly translated version of Britomart. Anyway, Shea and Belphoebe are back in Ohio and when Chalmers attempts to summon them to Orlando Furioso, he also gets two other psychology colleagues, Walter Bayard and Vaclav Polocek and transports all four of them to Xanadu. A short time later he tries again and gets Shea and Belphoebe, stranding Bayard and Polocek in the land of infinite houris and nectar (a fate worse than death…).

Owing to another lack of thought on Chalmer’s part Belphoebe has a strong counterpart in this world and merges with Belphagor, forcing Shea to find a way to restore her memory of their marriage or else re-winning her heart, neither of which seem particularly possible given her infatuation for a Moorish poet. Having not learned his lesson after working with Busirane, Chalmers has allied with the wizard Atlante, and… well I guess it proves he may be older, but no wiser than Shea.

In the next tale, Shea and Belphoebe, once again in Ohio and about to be arrested for the mysterious disappearances of Bayard and Polocek, decide they must rescue their friends from Xanadu, but feeling he needs help, Shea transports them to the Finnish world of Kalevala, incidentally taking one of the cops along with them. There they meet and convince the hero, Lemminkaenen, to help get the two from Xanadu and then must repay him by assisting him on a quest of his own.

The eventually leave Kalevala and end up in the Ireland of Queen Maeve where they tangle with and eventually ally with Cuchulainn.

In all, these stories are a fun romp through mythology and demonstrate that fantasy adventures need not be the thud and blunder, they all too frequently are. Don’t worry if you are unacquainted with all these mythos (I have to admit that when I first read these back in college I got lost by the time they ended up in Faerie) because by the end you’ll have a fair handle on them and likely be interested enough to look into the real things.

A definite must-read!

The Audiobook:

Huh! I nearly forgot to review this aspect of the stories. Ray Chase does a passable job of reading this, but I did not feel he was able to differentiate between voices well enough. It was difficult at times to know just who was talking. In some ways that should have been better than a load of funny voices and bad accents, but I got the impression that Mister Chase was trying too hard to put drama and emotion into his reading none the less.

I think this may have been an older and reissued recording which might explain what I was hearing. This was halfway between a simple reading of the book and the full sort of performance in the more modern style of audiobook.  That leads me to conclude this might have been recorded at a time when the model of an audiobook was transitioning from listening to some read a story to experiencing a performance and the result is not as enjoyable as one or the other.

However, as I said, it was a passable reading and if you enjoy the misadventures of Harold Shea, the recording ought not to diminish your enjoyment of experiencing them all over again.

This entry was posted in Adventure, Audio Books, Books, Fantasy, L. Sprague DeCamp, Satire and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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