Book Review: The Compleat Traveller in Black by John Brunner

The Compleat Traveller in Black by [Brunner, John]

Hi everyone,

Eric here, and before I get into my review, I need to share a little update.

When I first started this website earlier in the year, I’d stated that my goal was to upload a new story (or chapter) every three weeks, and I’ve been mostly able to keep up with that schedule…but now things are different.

It’s been two weeks since I uploaded Chapter Three of ‘FROM THE SHADOWS,’ and to be honest, I’m going to need more time to finish Chapter Four. The only way I could get it up by next week would be to rush it and upload something far below my standards (and something you, the reader, probably wouldn’t even enjoy).

So how much more time do I need? Right now, I’m thinking it’ll be sometime in late September. Ideally, I’ll be back to the new-installment-every-three-weeks routine after that. We’ll see.

Anyway, I hope I haven’t let any of you down. I really appreciate you all taking the time to check out my work, and I look forward to being able to share more stories with you later on.

BUT…enough about me. Let’s talk about The Compleat Traveller in Black.

Recommended by James Stoddrd, my favorite living author, John Brunner’s The Compleat Traveller in Black is a Fantasy short-story collection. In broad terms, these five tales are about the adventures of the title character: an enigmatic little man who wears a black cloak and wields a staff made of light, a man who is tasked by an even more enigmatic master to travel the world and battle against the forces of magic and chaos, all in order to usher in an era of stability and reason.

How does he go about accomplishing this? Well, even though he fights against it, our hero wields powerful magic himself…but it comes with a catch: most of his power is restricted, unable to be used except when granting the wishes of others, and his nature requires him to grant almost any he overhears, even if it ends up setting his mission back…or making the wisher worse off than before.

For the most part, I enjoyed this book. It has a lot of plusses in its favor.

For one, I appreciated the recurring morals. While the most obvious one would be that old adage of ‘be careful what you wish for,’ there was another one that really spoke to me. Several of the stories deal with the folly of humans and the gods they worship. One even features a city whose population arbitrarily decides to worship a new visitor as a god. While moments like this could be interpreted as a swipe at religion, to me it came across as more of a warning against mindless devotion. Thanks to sites like Twitter and Facebook (both sites that I love, mind you), it’s easier than ever to follow someone (author, actor, politician, professor, whatever), to uncritically hang onto their every word, making this warning more relevant than ever.

Another thing that made this book really fun was its vocabulary. If you love learning new words, this tome is a must-have. Brunner has no reservations on using obscure or even archaic terms. Thanks to him, I’ve discovered (and fallen in love with) gems like cantrips, baldric, and glabrous.

Of course, the main selling point of the book is the stories themselves, and, largely, they did not disappoint. My favorite moment in the book is probably somewhere in the middle, where we’re treated to a surprising-but-fitting twist where someone makes a wish not for any personal gain but to intentionally help the Traveller. I really loved seeing the Traveller’s reaction to this unexpected (even to him) development.

Despite the book falling into the ‘Sword and Sorcery’ vain, the last three stories are very restrained in violence, managing that neat trick of providing just enough detail for you to put together an image in your head.

That sadly, brings me to one of the book’s major flaws. While the last three stories were restrained when it came to violence, the first one was definitely not. While I’m not against this sort of thing, the way it’s used in this debut tale just doesn’t fit with that story’s other scenes, both clashing with and detracting from them.

As for the second story, it has a weird, uncomfortable fixation on brother-sister incest, with not one, not two, but three villains who either engage in it or try to (thankfully, no case is depicted graphically). I’m wondering if Brunner had read or seen some disturbing news story about the subject at the time and wanted to vent his revulsion into the tale. While I can certainly understand this revulsion, it just made for an awkward read.

Overall, I’d still recommend it, but if you have a weak stomach, skip to the third story.

You can buy the book here (US) or here (UK).

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