Behind the Mongolian Wizard

Michael Swanwick

Michael Swanwick’s Mongolian Wizard tales are currently one-third of the way through their projected 21-story arc. While individually each work stands alone, there is a great deal hidden in them that has application to the series as a whole. Herewith, a schematic guide to the action so far. The stories themselves can all be found at Tor.com.

 

First Story: “The Mongolian Wizard” by Michael Swanwick (Tor.com, 2012)

Franz-Karl Ritter, an officer in the Werewolf Corps, is providing security for a conference of European wizards who have gathered to discuss the looming threat of the Mongolian Wizard and his armies. There he meets the seemingly-comical Sir Toby Willoughby-Quirke who demonstrates living toy soldiers, to the condescending amusement of all. But when the soldiers disappear, Ritter grows suspicious. Using his mental link with his trained wolf, he investigates and finds far more than he could have expected – including the beginning of a war that will engulf all of Europe.

Swanwick Comments: This is a Ruritanian fantasy in the tradition of Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy stories and Poul Anderson’s “Operation Werewolf.” It introduces the two chief characters, the war that will be fought to its conclusion through the remaining stories, and one of the basic premises of the series – that the old order, based on magical/psychic powers, is fading away.

 

Second Story: “The Fire Gown” (Tor.com 2012)

The Mongolian Wizard has invaded Poland. Ritter and Sir Toby are called to Buckingham Palace to investigate the spontaneous combustion of Queen Titania when she donned a gown woven from salamander’s hair – an act meant to incapacitate King Oberon at the onset of war. Ritter meets the dressmaker’s daughter, the (his words) Jewess Shulamith Rosenberg. Together, they discover that her father has been murdered, and that the saboteur has left behind a box containing thousands of plague fleas. Ritter deliberately ignites a bolt of salamander cloth to destroy them, expecting to die. He survives, thanks in part to actions by his new wolf, Freki. Shulamith, however, dies. When he ahas recovered enough to return to his empty apartment, he brings with him a crayon portrait of her, hangs it on the wall, and burst into tears.

Swanwick Comments: Ritter, though he does not realize it, is a proto-Nazi who has had the good fortune not to fall under evil influences. His idealization of Ms Rosenberg is the first suggestion that he may grow out of his limitations and also a clue that he is unknowingly seeking love. The entire series chronicles his struggle to not lose his soul.

 

Third Story: “The Day of the Kraken” (Tor.com 2012)

Set during the Phony War. Mudlarks – children who scrounge in the tidal mud for scrap metal – witness and report a chest deliberately sunk in the Thames. It contains kraken eggs which, when hatched, would render the port unusable. Though this is recovered, the saboteurs kidnap five children, all girls, and the locales of these crimes form an inverted pentagram, suggesting they mean to perform human sacrifice. (While magic works in this series, demonism does not.) Evidence has been left behind suggesting that the crimes were committed by Catholics – the saboteurs’ intent, obviously, is to cause religious strife.

Ritter and Freki track the saboteurs to an unused priory, but are captured and held captive with the little girls.In order to save them, Ritter must commit a crime that will shock even Sir Toby.

Swanwick Comments: There is usually banter between Ritter and Sir Toby, who finds his stuffiness humorous. From this story, for example:

“I have an excellent sense of humor,” Ritter said indignantly.

“Have you really? I must remember to have you tell a joke someday in order to test this hypothesis.”

However, Sir Toby also feels that Ritter is insufficiently ruthless, and is constantly trying to mold him into a man without conscience. He is simultaneously a humanizing and a dehumanizing influence on Ritter.

 

Fourth Story: “House of Dreams” (Tor.com, 2013)

Two vagrants travel across Germany in bleakest winter. One asks questions which the second evades. Until finally Ritter puts together inconsistencies in the situation and forcibly awakens himself from a dream. He has been captured and is undergoing dream therapy by two of the Mongolian Wizard’s alienists. Through induced illusions, bit by bit, they gain information from him. But so far not the two things they desire most: The purpose of his mission and the identity of his traveling companion. So, unexpectedly, they release Ritter. He walks for hour after hour until finally, on the edge of exhaustion, he arrives at the farmhouse where he was being held captive. He has been shown that there is no hope. Later, he is given a vision of himself, back in London, killing Sir Toby, and realizes this is their ultimate intent.

He has only one advantage: Freki is still out in the cold, and they think him a man and not a wolf.

Swanwick Comments: Commonly, a new psychic power is introduced in each story. This story is so far unique in not introducing a new magical creature.

This has been the most popular story of the series, I believe.

 

Fifth Story: “The Night of the Salamander” (Tor.com, 2015)

The Mongolian Wizard has invaded France. Fighting is fierce. On the eve of a battle, Ritter is at an aristocratic party when he is summoned by Sir Toby to the headquarters of Marechal de Camp Martel, who has been murdered and whose power is to instill absolute loyalty upon his troops and everyone he encounters. On impulse, he brings with him Lady Angelique de la Fontaine, a psychic surgeon with whom he had been flirting.

Working together, Ritter and Lady Angelique discover that, while indispensable to the French army, the Marechal was a loathsome human being, hated by the only three suspects: his valet, his aide, and his underage mistress. The murder is solved with relative ease. But there is a greater danger lurking beneath the surface.

Swanwick Comments: Many of the names in this series refer to classical fantasy. For example, de la Fontaine was the great French fantasist. In “The Phantom of the Maze,” Alice Hargreaves was the married name of Lewis Carroll’s Alice.

Freki is always an indispensable part of Ritter’s investigations, usually due to his superior range of senses, particularly smell, but occasionally as muscle. So there are in each story three indispensable characters: Ritter, Sir Toby, and Freki. Sir Toby’s part is usually small but always important.

 

Sixth Story: “The Pyramid of Krakow” (Tor.com, 2015)

A blind Swiss commercial traveler in chemicals comes to Krakow, accompanied by his seeing-eye wolf. Ritter, of course. He is shown the first pyramid of Krakow (more are to be built), atop which human sacrifices are made in great number in order to traumatize witnessing devotees into their potential powers. This is the source of the Mongolian Wizard’s seemingly endless supply of magicians. Ritter is identified as a spy but Kaska, a secretary, turns out to be a Polish freedom fighter. He sets fire to the Royal Palace and throws a young fool (exactly like his younger self but on the wrong side) to the enemy. Ultimately, he is saved from a witch-finder when Kaska feeds the man to the gargoyles.

When Sir Toby gets Ritter’s report, he receives it as moral permission to take actions he had previously considered too immoral to dangerous. The story ends on this unhappy premonition.

Swanwick Comments: Here I introduce the Holocaust into the mix. Ritter has been increasingly reluctant to play Sir Toby’s game. Now he sees here is no morally acceptable alternative. Yet he is painfully aware of the evil he is agreeing to.

Though there is no romantic element to this story, Kaska will reappear. She and Angelique are to become Ritter’s two great loves. At least one of them will not survive the war.

The war begins as a conventional Napoleonic-era war and will conclude as something very like World War II.

 

Seventh Story: “The Phantom in the Maze” (Tor.com, 2015)

At a government institution in the British countryside, young women work at scrying the future, drawing detailed diagrams of future weapons technology to be employed in the war. One of these women has been murdered at midnight at the center of the hedge maze on the day of her arrival. Since she knew no one there, Ritter is sent to discover if it is the work of saboteurs.

The murder turns out to be a crime of passion. The victim, Alice Hargreaves, arrived knowing she would have a passionate affair with the Director, a serial philanderer. She was killed by the Director’s current lover, who foresaw this affair. However, in the course of investigation strange things happen. A bird appears and disappears inside a closed room. Ritter has a discussion with the murdered woman. In a confrontation with the Director, the man is killed and then restored to life. The intensive alterations to the time frame have destabilized reality locally. If the meddling with time continues, the effects may spread to all of Europe.

Ritter promises to have the institute closed down. But the Director has foreseen this and produces a letter from Sir Toby saying it will not be. The destabilization of reality has begun.

Swanwick Comments: This is set in Bletchley Park, though the name never appears in the story. This concludes the first third of the series and finishes establishing the ground rules. From this point on, the conflict will be a war pitting technology against magic with humanity caught in the middle.

 

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