“The Blue Star” Shines

I’ve written before about Fletcher Pratt, incidentally referencing The Blue Star. But it has been years since I’ve read it. It is one of those books pilloried by the scolds and Mrs. Grundy’s who appear like a locust infestation from time to time in the speculative fiction field. Perhaps they have a point and I missed something on my previous read through. Time to find out.

The novel opens with the first half of one of those bookends we seldom get anymore but that used to be more common. A port and pipe fueled philosophical conversation between intellectuals discusses the likelihood and possible make up of alternative earths, narrowing down possibilities to one in which the discovery of gunpowder did not occur, but instead psychic powers or witchcraft developed. All three men dream the same dream that night, the content of which is the novel (between the bookends.)

The story occurs in an Alternate European Enlightenment period, on the cusp of the equivalent of the French Revolution. There a suggestions of geographic state overlap and alternative religious and cultural groups (a Jewish people, Germanics, an orthodox church as well as a splinter-group combining attributes of both the more positive standard protestant sects as well as some of the more outré practices of some of the less well known splinter groups.

Into this background is thrust the male protagonist, Rodvard Bergelin. Rodvard is an idealist (and naive) clerk, attached to a revolutionary cell. He is tasked with seducing a witch, becoming her paired man, and thus gaining the power of the eponymous Blue Star, which grants him the power to read minds if he has a good look into the eyes of another. Everything proceeds from this one act.

And this is the act that seems to cause the kerfuffle. Let me address it and move on. It is not rape. It is seduction. Roughly done, yes. Boorish, uncommendable. Deplorable, even. The roughness, if continued, might have indeed reached the awful level of rape. That can’t be determined, because ultimately the act was in fact consensual. The female protagonist, the witch-despite-herself Lalette Asterhax, verbally acquiesces, not merely conveying consent through action and body language.

From there the story progresses to betrayals, escapes, reunions, murders, and political intrigue. But what is it really about? Well, there is an awful lot going on. The capacity of custom to rein in power, for one thing. Otherwise, a world in which witchcraft reigned unchecked would necessarily look substantially different that that of Blue Star. I wonder if the hobbled matriarchy is intended to represent a vestigial remnant of an earlier rule by witches in this alternate world? Had there been some brutal, horrific backlash millennia before, an uprising against a ruling class of witches?

The book is about the feet of iron and clay of all men. The idea that even those displaying the noblest of actions may in fact be harboring evil thoughts. That all men do so to some extent; the outer expression — verbal or otherwise — is a mere mask.

It is about the flux and uncertainty involving commitment, second thoughts, infidelity, constancy. The tumble of shifting views and emotions over time.

That good intentions may lead to evil outcomes. At the same time, ignoble, Machiavellian acts may lead to good outcomes. Or may not. Motives may count for little.

The overwhelming nature of a youthful libido, crushing the knowledge of consequences in even the most sensitive, thoughtful, and well-meaning. Rodvard has a relationship with a beautiful, potentially loving witch. Why can’t he corral his wandering eye, we plead with him. But before you judge the wayward affections of Rodvard too harshly, try to recall your own youth. Remember your own actions and the people your actions touched. I like the clean, fragile glass of my house; I won’t be chucking any stones. There is an element of the picaresque about this aspect of the novel, but ultimately the ruminations are too serious, too universal. The bedroom escapades are not played for laughs.

It is about the pot metal beneath the gilding of all high-minded statements and the base drives that override all noble thoughts. It is a hard look at the reality of human nature, the thin veneer of virtue over base, animalistic drives.

The novel traffics in the cynicism of James Branch Cabell, though absent his wry, snarky humor. It is equally as philosophical as Cabell and, from a widely diverging viewpoint, E.R. Eddison.

To be blunt, this isn’t a book I can universally recommend. It isn’t for everyone, and that’s neither a condemnation of the book nor of those who find it unpleasant. Blue Star rewards slow, careful, open-minded reading. This isn’t an action-packed page turner to rocket through. You’ll want to be in the mood for contemplation and have the time for it, whether you concur with the rather pessimistic conclusions or not. If you rush, wondering where the action is, you’ll find this a disappointing read. Happily, I was in the mood for it. But now I’m going to leap into the most recent of Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe novels. Sabers and rifle bullets, here I come.

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