Speak to the Devil, the first novel in Dave Duncan‘s new The Brothers Magnus series, is set in Jorgary, a fictional country inserted smack in the middle of late 15th-century Europe. Aside from this new country, the second main divergence from the actual history is a form of magic called Speaking, which involves asking saints (or according to the Church, demons) for intercession.
Anton Magnus, a young and ambitious hussar in the Jorgarian army, asks his squire and younger brother Wulfgang for some help catching the eye of the rich and powerful during a royal hunt. After all, the Magnus family is desperately trying to raise money to ransom Vlad, yet another brother, who was captured during a recent war — and if that involves asking Wulfgang for a risky display of the forbidden Speaking magic, so be it.
After a suspiciously spectacular feat of horsemanship, Anton definitely draws the court’s attention, getting him involved in a wildly dangerous mission… which may lead to unheard-of rewards. Eventually Marek, the youngest Magnus, who has been imprisoned in a monastery because of his Speaking ability, and even Otto, the oldest brother and head of the family, also become involved in the adventure.
Speak to the Devil starts off as an enjoyable courtly adventure. Anton is a fun main character: cocksure, witty and brashly likable. The story is so smoothly narrated that the pages practically turn themselves. The dialogue is often funny, occasionally to the point of being glib, as if the author were more concerned with “what would sound funny here?” than “what would this character really think or say?”. The novel is airily plotted; it’s definitely best not to take things too seriously or question people’s motivations too closely. Just grab some popcorn and enjoy the ride, as improbable as things may seem at times.
Plotting and characterization may be on the thin side, but the realistic descriptions of meals, travel and living environments, and the usage of era-appropriate vocabulary, definitely display Dave Duncan‘s knowledge of the historical period. The author also accurately portrays the changed nature of warfare, due to the advent of gunpowder siege weaponry and the increased role of mercenaries. It’s unfortunate that this level of historical depth isn’t matched by the rest of the novel, because that aspect of Speak of the Devil is top-notch.
Because of its hectic pace and entertaining characters, the first half of Speak to the Devil is an enjoyable (if shallow) read, but the story becomes increasingly improbable as the novel progresses. The ending is a bit abrupt, but clearly sets things up for the next volume in The Brothers Magnus, tentatively scheduled for May 2011. Despite some flaws, Speak to the Devil is a fun, breezy novel that should please fans of Dave Duncan, as well as readers who are in the mood for a light, fast-moving adventure.