The Mancer Series (Books 1-6): Book Review by Fred Patten
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Pyromancer, by Don Callander. Map by the author.
NYC, Ace Books, May 1992, paperback $4.50 ([v +] 292 pages)
Aquamancer, by Don Callander. Map by the author.
NYC, Ace Books, January 1993, paperback $4.99 ([v +] 289 pages)
Geomancer, by Don Callander. Map by the author.
NYC, Ace Books, January 1994, paperback $4.99 (v +] 257 pages)
Aeromancer, by Don Callander.
NYC, Ace Books, September 1997, paperback $5.99 ([iii +] 289 pages)
Marbleheart, by Don Callander.
NYC, Ace Books, July 1998, paperback $5.99 (278 pages).
The Reluctant Knight, by Don Callander.
Cincinnati, OH, Mundania Press, June 2014, paperback $12.95 (204 pages)
Curious … The first five of these were published without a series title, between 1992 and 1998. They were reprinted by Mundania Press in 2013 as the Mancer Series, with a sixth in 2014. By Don Callander, but ISFDB says that he died before that. Donald Bruce Callander, March 23, 1930 – July 26, 2008.
What’s more, the copyright dates of the first three 2013 reprints agree with the Ace editions, 1992, 1993, and 1994. But for the last two they are 1995 and 1996, not 1997 and 1998 when the Ace editions were published, and with The Reluctant Knight © 1995 (and Marbleheart © 1996) even though it wasn’t published until 2014.
Ace Books published a lot of whimsical light fantasies in the 1990s, by authors such as Piers Anthony, John DeChancie, Esther Friesner, and Craig Shaw Gardner. Most of them have talking animals in supporting or minor roles, such as Gardner’s 1990 Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies, but none are really memorable. (Maybe Scandal, the wisecracking kitten, who is a major character in Friesner’s Majyk trilogy.) But Callander’s Marbleheart Sea Otter, a furry sidekick in the original series, was popular enough to win his own starring sequel in 1998.
I won’t say that Callander’s fantasies are bad — they aren’t, really, for those who like light fantasies. But they are very – I’m not sure whether “cute” or “twee” fits them better. They are the type of fantasies that other fantasy writers make fun of; full of singing and dancing pixies and elves and fairies and friendly animals. And furniture & utensils. Here is dinnertime at Wizard’s High, a wizard’s cottage:
“Shortly they sat down to a feast and were regaled by the antics of the salt and pepper shakers and the serious, droll sayings of the Gravy Boat, who also chanted Sea songs and seamen’s ditties for them.
A pair of fire tongs did a clattery clog dance on the hearth, and Blue Teakettle herself acted as ringmistress over it all and kept the good food hot and savory, coming at just the right pace and intervals. Toward the end the entire chorus of pots and pans sang old favorites with the crocks and cutting board humming along in perfect harmony. And never once did Douglas consider how odd this little household was.” (Pyromancer, p. 10)
Douglas Brightglade, a lively and cheery lad, answers a wizard’s advertisement:
To learn the MYSTERIES and SECRETS of
WIZARDRY in the Discipline of FIRE
From a MASTER MAGICIAN, SUPREME SPELLCASTER
AND PRESTIGIOUS PYROMANCER!
And learn Douglas does, from the wizard Flarman Flowerstalk over four novels and five years. He meets all sorts of talking animals and objects, from Flarman’s busybody, clattery Bronze Owl doorknocker, to the seagulls Cerfew, Tratto, and Trotta (she’s a girl; a Gullfriend), to the porpoises Skimmer, Leaper, and Spinner, to Oval, the Giant Sea Tortoise, to the evil Ice King’s spies:
“‘It is best we become more circumspect in our comings and goings from now. I’ve seen some suspicious crows hanging around the top of the High lately.’
‘Yes, I noticed them and told Bronze Owl about them. He said he didn’t like the cut of their pinions.’” (Pyromancer, p. 81)
In Pyromancer, Douglas meets the above as he and Flarman Flowerstalk (who soon becomes Flarman Firemaster) join Augurian Watermaster to lead the free men, faeries, Dwarves, and other peoples of this world against the would-be world-conquering Frigeon, the Ice King, and his armies of orcs, ghouls, witches, banshees, goblins, and similar cruel monsters. Douglas also meets the beautiful island maiden Myrn Manster, who becomes his fiancée and Augurian’s Apprentice Water-Wizard. But Marbleheart isn’t in Pyromancer.
In Aquamancer Douglas, now a Journeyman Pyromancer, is sent by Flarman to journey to Old Kingdom, a part of this world he has never seen before, to investigate a rumor that a Coven of Black Witches is seizing power there. Douglas learns not only that the rumors are true, he’s captured by them (or seems to be). Myrn goes to his rescue!
But well before that, Douglas is swept overboard in a storm and meets Marbleheart.
“‘A river’s mouth?’ he [Douglas] wondered, aloud. Talking to himself was another habit he had acquired from Flarman, who kept up running conversations with himself while he worked. ‘And if so, is the river nearby?’
‘Not far away,’ said a cheerful voice, startling him by its nearness. He missed a stroke and submerged completely for a moment. He hadn’t seen the long, brown, sleek-bodied animal floating on its back in the water ahead of him, forelegs folded on its chest.
‘Sorry!’ said the animal, waving one forepaw. ‘I didn’t mean to startle you.’
Douglas trod water and examined the creature apprehensively. It had a narrow, streamlined body covered with luxuriant fur. Including tail and whiskers, it stretched at least five feet long in the water. Its narrow, pointed face was pleasantly rodent [rodent?], with a pert and upturned black nose and wide-set, intelligent eyes above flaring gray whiskers and sharp, white teeth. (Aquamancer, pgs. 34-35)
Douglas and Marbleheart immediately hit it off. The sea otter has explored the seas thoroughly, and is eager to see the inland areas. Young man and young otter not only become best friends, Douglas teaches Marbleheart some basic fire magic and the otter becomes his familiar. By the end of Aquamancer, Marbleheart is a full member of the wizardly coterie.
Geomancer begins with Douglas going north to a melting glacier. Naturally, Marbleheart goes along. This paragraph shows Callander’s penchant for using flowing multiple descriptors:
“From all around them came the rushing, gushing, gurgling, and tinkling of water dashing over stones and minor falls, hidden in cracks and crevices or dashing across smooth, flat slabs of dark blue gabro granite. Where their way crossed an icy streamlet or skirted a shallow pool of meltwater, the Otter paused a moment to splash and dabble. Cold or not, water was his preferred element.” (Geomancer, p. 6)
When a living stone giant seizes Douglas and a companion and carries them under the glacier, Marbleheart quickly follows them. The otter realizes that the magic involved is dangerous and above his level, but he doesn’t let that deter him from trying to help Douglas; even when it means following him to one of the driest deserts in the world. “‘Even if he hates waterless deserts,’ muttered Marbleheart under his breath. ‘No water! No fish!’” (p. 78) Marbleheart’s diet, by the way, throughout the series includes pork chops, which I can understand a sea otter liking, but also such dishes (at different times) as pancakes with lots of maple syrup, curried carrots, ice cream with strawberry sauce, and hot, sugary coffee.
“They were met by Clangeon, much relieved to see them again, and shortly the capable steward had set a tasty meal before them: fresh-caught, broiled Sea bass, watercress salad, spicy crab-cakes, and excellent corn bread, all of which Marbleheart declared were superb.” (Geomancer, p. 84)
“Marbleheart enthusiastically supervised the cooking until he was good-naturedly shooed away by the village wives for sampling the berry pies, marble cakes, and cookies too liberally before dinner.” (Geomancer, p. 183)
“‘Speech! Speech!’ called Marbleheart. He reached for the last piece of banana cream pie.” (Geomancer, p. 244)
He’s called by another character in Geomancer “the cuddly Marbleheart” (p. 60). Unfortunately, there’s a further reference on page 106 to him as a rodent:
“‘The heat is getting to him, poor rodent,’ Wong, who was beginning to learn to tease, said gently.’”
The first three Mancer novels (covers by Daniel R. Horne) were each published a year apart from 1992 to 1994. They cover Douglas Brightglade’s beginning his training, his meeting Myrn and his engagement to her, and his meeting Marbleheart Sea Otter, up to Douglas’ and Myrn’s planning for their wedding. Aeromancer (cover by Don Clavette) wasn’t published until 1997, three years later, and it begins with Douglas and Myrn married for some time and Douglas bouncing their two two-year-old twins, Brand and Brenda, on his knees. It feels like there’s a novel missing here.
A possible complication was that between 1992 and 1994, Ace Books was a subsidiary/imprint of The Berkeley Publishing Group. In 1996 the entire Berkeley Publishing Group was “acquired” by Penguin Putnam Inc. This must have been “in the works” and known by Ace’s editorial department for some time before it was finalized. Was Callander’s Mancer series put on hold between Geomancer and Aeromancer, and did the new ownership decide against any further Mancer novels except Aeromancer and Marbleheart which were already contracted for?
In Aeromancer, a flying-horse filly colt comes to Wizard’s High (now Wizards’ High), presumably for help; but she can’t talk:
“‘No comment, eh?’ the web-footed animal [Marbleheart] said, sighing. ‘Well, that makes it more difficult, doesn’t it? She not being able or willing to speak, as it were.’
The beautiful little horse trotted over to greet him shyly, nodding and pawing the damp earth in a pleased-to-meet-you fashion.
‘Is it that you can’t speak?’ Marbleheart wondered. ‘Or that you don’t care to?’
The horse, given the choice, managed to indicate her complete inability to speak.
‘Was it ever thus?’ asked the Otter, shaking his head sadly.
The filly shook her head also.
‘You could once talk? Is that it?’
The little horse nodded vigorously.
‘And you miss it, don’t you?’
The horse signaled a definite ‘Yes!’ by bobbing her head up and down several times.” (Aeromancer, p. 12)
A friend is magically kidnapped to this world’s Nearer East, and their own magic indicates that only Myrn can save him. She and the flying horseling, who Myrn dubs Nameless, go after him; but after a warm and friendly welcome by the Sultan and Sultana of the Arabian Nights country of the Empire of the Midday Sun, Myrn is suddenly abducted and carried off to be sold into slavery. Nameless follows her and the kidnappers. So do Douglas and Marbleheart when they learn about it, with Douglas disguised as a desert tribesman and Marbleheart transformed into his pet black monkey. Aeromancer shows how Marbleheart has become an equal to all the humans:
“Marbleheart Sea Otter, taking a break from being a monkey, stretched himself full length in the still-warm sand, listening to their talk and putting in comments when he felt the conversation needed a boost.” (p. 160)
Aeromancer is also about Nameless’ adventures with the talking Nearer Eastern animals, and a twenty-foot-long dragon:
“‘A flying horse, as I live long and breathe fire,’ exclaimed Lesser Dragon. ‘Don’t fear, dear filly. We won’t harm you. Sit here by my side until the storm falls off [a fierce desert sandstorm], and let me introduce you to my friends…’
The Dragon’s head turned and as he named the beasts about him, his words were delivered with short, pale flashes of pure flame and welcome warmth.
‘Here’s an old friend: Riantor the Jackal. He lives in the heart of High Desert and raises his family on its hot sands.’
The striped, black-and-yellow doglike beast grinned broadly at the horse and nodded in greeting. Beyond him were his mate and a litter of lately bora puppies, gazing at the horse over their mother’s ruffled mane. They grinned and chuckled softly.
‘By my right hind-leg is Oliver, Patriarch of all the High Desert Hares, and his six wives and twenty-seven kinder,’ continued the Dragon, puffing pink, peppermint-scented smoke rings their way. And here is …’
He introduced a dozen other animals, all of whom nodded and spoke to the little horse pleasantly, urging her to come close and settle down near the Dragon.
‘Without young Lesser here,’ explained the mother of a large family of desert rats, ‘well, some of us would not survive these storms, and it’s so much more pleasant to be here with our friend, safe and warm.’” (p. 118)
The friendly Nearer Eastern desert talking animals whom Nameless meets include an elderly lion, dik-diks, ocelots, zebras, wild goats, pronghorn antelopes (there are antelopes in the Near East, but pronghorns? Well, this is the Nearer East), hyenas, and more. In Aeromancer the two adventurers finally join together, Nameless’ real name is learned, and she and Marbleheart join Douglas and the rescued Myrn in defeating the Dark Servant.
After four books, Aeromancer ends:
“‘It’s all over,’ Douglas told Marbleheart.
‘Which means,’ Marbleheart chuckled, ‘knowing things around here, that new things are just about to begin to happen.
‘Dinner first, however,’ the Sea Otter added, following the Wizards Brightglade and their whooping children across the lawn to the front door.” (p. 288)
Callander must have known as he ended Aeromancer that he had a contract to extend the series for at least one more novel. Marbleheart followed Aeromancer one year later; 1997 and 1998. However, in book time five years had passed. Douglas’s and Myrn’s twins, who were two years old in Aeromancer, are seven years old in Marbleheart.
As Marbleheart begins, the Sea Otter has been a resident of Wizards’ Rest for the last five years and he is bored:
“Now the furry Familiar’s time was filled with serious study, with careful reading of ancient, musty, dusty books, of sneezing from fumes of bubbling retorts, peering through murky magnifying glasses, conjuring up columns of acrid smoke, and enduring endless discussions of wizardly Ways and Means.
‘All very important and very useful and all that, I admit to you,’ Marbleheart said to a largemouth bass, who came swimming by on his way to the reed beds below Augurian’s Fountain.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ snapped the startled bass, watching the Otter warily from a safe distance. ‘you eat regularly, don’t you? No having to hunt for your supper in ice-cold water!’” (p. 2)
Bored, bored, bored! But not so bored as to throw over his studies when the tiny (one and a half feet tall) child Prince Flowerbender of Faerie wants the Otter to join him in running away going questing:
“‘Something told me you might be … well, that you might welcome … er … that I might persuade you to go Questing with me. I need a companion, you see, and you …’
‘Impossible!’ cried Otter, pretending shock at the very idea. ‘I’ve much too much very important work to do! Douglas needs me! Myrn and the twins need me! The Ice King’s enchantments and everything! Why … !’
‘Oh, pooh!’ sighed the fairy in disappointment, drumming his heels against the side of the wooden bucket. ‘I hoped that you … and I heard what you just said to yourself. ‘Bored,’ you said. I heard you!’
Marbleheart drew himself up, gathering a suitably firm but polite and tactful refusal. But one that would, in effect, leave the door open for negotiation.
‘‘Tis bad luck to lie to a fairy! Especially a Prince of Faerie like me,’ the tiny Prince warned.
‘Well …’ the Otter sighed after a further moment’s pause, ‘I admit to being … sort of … bored and suffering itchy footpads and …’
‘Fine! I hereby appoint thee, Sir Marbleheart of Briny Deep, to be my boon companion in adventuring!’
The Prince leapt from the bucket bottom and landed lightly on the slate paving.
‘So… let’s be off!’ he said in a businesslike tone. ‘You’ll be my courser, too, as well as advisor and counsilor and picnicking companion! You love to eat. I imagine you’re a pretty good campfire cook, too?’” (p. 12)
Marbleheart persuades him, as his advisor and counsilor, to stay for dinner first. During dinner, Marbleheart contacts the Prince’s parents. They agree, since the Prince wants to go adventuring, to let him do so in the company of a responsible adult like Marbleheart, whose advising he has shown he will listen to. Marbleheart doesn’t mind, as long as he is the senior member of a team – and not a steed.
“‘Let me ask, if you won’t be insulted,’ Marbleheart said before they had gone far. ‘Last time I met your folks, they were both as tall as Douglas – taller than Flarman. You’re a fifth that size, at best. What is your normal altitude?’
‘Oh, just about any convenient size. Papa says he once made himself a giant, fifty feet tall! I’d like to’ve seen that!’
‘So would I. So, you can pick your favorite size, can you?’ Marbleheart asked, truly interested.
‘All fairies can do that! What size would you prefer?’
‘We’ve a longish way to tramp, m’boy. Longer legs and more stomach-room’ll get you further at regular boy-size, don’t you think?’
‘I was, actually,’ Ben said wistfully, ‘planning to ride Otter-back.’
‘Ho! Make your very best friend do all the walking and carrying … is that it? Let me tell you, young Flowerbender, Questing has to be a cooperative enterprise, each for the other, and one for all!’” (p. 28)
Considering an Otter’s regular galumphing land-gait, I don’t know how comfortable it’d be to ride one. At any rate, they go through Marbleheart as a full-sized boy of nine or ten, but with transparent blue wings, and a six-foot-long but four-legged Otter – Prince Flowerbender (Ben) not as the gauzy-winged creature on Dan Horne’s cover (or Niki Browning’s on the 2013 Mundania Press edition, which makes Ben look girlish to boot).
Their Questing is educative rather than dramatic. A good ruler of Faerie needs to know much, which is the main reason that Ben’s royal parents have agreed to his going Questing under Marbleheart’s tutelage. Marbleheart starts out as a travelogue by ship to where the adventures in the previous books took place, now that those places have become peaceful. However, Marbleheart and Ben never get there, due to a violent seastorm:
“Marbleheart appeared from deck, puffing and blowing lustily. The companions ate without talking, not because there was nothing to say but because the shuttering, shivering, shattering, creaking, groaning, snapping, rasping of ropes and timbers, and the constant howl of wind and hiss of water, made conversation impossible.” (p. 71)
… followed by shipwreck, becoming castaway with the captain – a pretty lady captain, Lorianne – and drifting ashore onto a strange land. Meanwhile, Douglas, Myrn, and their children back at Wizards’ High are menaced by pirates – rather, the villains from Pyromancer, turned to piracy and back for revenge. Actually, the villains, although nasty, are so inept that Douglas, his wife, the seven-year-old twins, the animated cookpots and tableware, Flittery Chipmunk, and Papa & Mrs. Thatchmouse are more than enough to take them in hand. Callander shows an unusual skill at keeping everything quite adventurous for 278 pages while making it clear that the main characters are never in more danger than being mildly inconvenienced and pass the strawberry jam, please. All the wildlife that both parties encounter are very friendly … well, the carnivores are at least polite:
“‘Leave us to our sleep until we wake in the morning,’ Otter said. ‘Do you plan to spend much time down in the mouth?’
‘Just ‘til first light. We’ll probably be hungry again and come seeking some breakfast. If you’re still here …’
‘You’ll find a good, hearty breakfast waiting for you,’ Marbleheart promised. ‘But you won’t find us.’
‘Wise Sea Otter,’ rumbled the lead alligator, nodding his head slowly. ‘I’ll even give you a word of warning. Watch out for a gang of fierce hippos, upstream. Frightening, terrible, ravening monsters! Pink, if you can believe that! Not at all trustworthy nor even very bright, either. Danger by the ton!’” (pgs. 142-143)
The “horrendous hippos”, who prove to be quite friendly, pass them on to a forest porcupine named Toothpick; and … well, they have more adventures, including an unexpected one in which Ben and Marbleheart save an entire kingdom! Ben as a full-sized boy gets to demonstrate his wings (which are gauzy but powerful); old friends are met in unexpected places; true romance blossoms; and Callander manages to find a couple of loose threads from the previous four novels and tie them up here. Marbleheart (cover by Dan Horne; presumably the same Daniel R. Horne who painted the covers of the first three books) seemed to be a fine coda to the 1992-1998 series.
However, as noted above, the five Ace Books were reprinted by Mundania Press in 2013-2014 after Don Callander’s 2008 death, as the Mancer Series, Books 1 through 5, and with a new Book 6 added, The Reluctant Knight. Did Callander try to sell this to Ace Books during his lifetime and have it rejected? There is no explanation, though one can be guessed at.
It is clear that The Reluctant Knight follows Marbleheart, because Brand and Brenda Brightglade, who were seven years old in Marbleheart, are eight years old here. It begins with the inhabitants of Wizards’ Keep noticing a lone knight in full armor slowly riding toward the Keep. Knights are unusual, and this one is doubly so because his armor bears no coat-of-arms, blazons, escutcheons, or other markings. The knight arrives just as a violent storm breaks out, and as they are about to invite him indoors, he is struck by lightning.
“A blinding flash of lightning filled the hall, all Valley and, it seemed, the whole world!
Bronze Owl screeched in alarm and tumbled beak-over-tail feathers to the floor slates, brilliant blue electricity leaping all around his metal body.
The Otter’s fur stood on end and he hissed like Teakettle at the sight of the glowing figure in the hall. Myrn covered her eyes against the glare and cried, ‘Douglas!’ but kept running down the hall after the Pyromancers.
‘Owl? You all right?’
‘A bit blackened about the wingtips, I fear,’ gasped the bronze bird. ‘Shocked me, only. Help the poor man!’
Flarman, taking in the scene in a glance, stepped past Douglas and the Owl and dropped to his knees beside the smoking, armor-clad figure sprawled across the threshold.
‘Seen this before, a few times,’ he snapped to the younger Pyromancer. ‘Careless! Should’ve shed his armor the minute it started to thunder!’
‘But … is he alive?’ Myrn gasped.” (pgs. 18-19)
The knight is alive, but he has complete amnesia. He does not remember his name or why he came to Wizards’ Keep. Chestnut, his talking charger, doesn’t know, either.
“‘I’m sorry; he never told me his name. I call him either ‘Master’ or ‘Sir’. It served our purposes well enough … until now.’
‘You’ve not been with him long, then?’
‘Seems like a long time but I wasn’t keeping track,’ the stallion explained apologetically.’” (p. 24)
Okay, this is the first improbability. Callander has obviously gone out of his way to keep the knight’s name and purpose unknown.
Since the inhabitants of the Keep have to call the knight something, they temporarily dub him Sir Galad. He is horribly embarrassed for his amnesia, and offers to help out at odd jobs until his memory comes back. But it doesn’t, and the Wizards are too busy at other important work to help him out.
“Myrn, increasingly chubby with her unborn child, gradually let her more active chores be taken by Galad; such things as harvesting her kitchen garden. He prepared lawns and flower beds and vegetable plots for the winter and spoke eagerly of springtime planning and planting.” (p. 37)
This is the second improbability; that everyone would allow Sir Galad’s real name and his mission – which was presumably important – to be pushed aside for days, then weeks, and finally months. Not just at Wizards’ Keep, as Galad makes himself useful throughout the Valley of Dukedom, even becoming the Acting Captain of the volunteer Valley Patrol.
Callander lets Galad’s story become increasingly minor as he switches to what the Wizards are so busy doing. Pyromancer is about the battle against evil Frigeon, the Ice King, who is finally defeated. There are mentions in the subsequent books that the reconstituted Fellowship of Light have been concentrating on finding Frigeon’s old evil spells and nullifying them, when they are not involved with the adventures of each book. In The Reluctant Knight, the Wizards and the story concentrate upon these forgotten but still active spells, which is why they do not have time to concentrate upon restoring Galad’s memory or tracing his past.
After about a year, the Wizards are drawn toward the unknown Littoral Kingdoms of the far East. They discover that one of them, Sulleña, may be where Frigeon sent Thorowood, the missing father of Thornwood, the present Duke of Dukedom. Coincidentally, Sulleñna may be improbably where Galad and Chestnut come from. By now the reader will have guessed there is a magical reason why neither Galad nor Chestnut can remember anything. Flarman, Douglas, Augurian, Myrn, Marbleheart, and the whole gang gather for a lengthy solving that ties everything up but is extremely complex – maybe too complex for Ace Books.
So the series ends. And apparently Callander and his editors never did learn that otters aren’t rodents:
“‘Wonder where the horse got to?’ Douglas asked, pausing at the rickety old gate that stood opened onto River Road. ‘If you were a badly frightened horse, Marbleheart, where would you bolt?’
‘Tell the truth? I’d find a hole to hide in. But that’s an Otter’s answer. We’re basically rodents and rodents hide from danger in holes. Deeper the better! Let me see …”” (The Reluctant Knight, p. 22)