Alternative history stories usually either thrive or fail for me depending on plausibility. The writer can’t just tell me a good yarn, (s)he also needs to be able to fit this yarn into a world I recognize, and make me buy the history. That’s not an easy thing to do. When you take a well-known, often romanticized period of time, and infuse it with magic, that task is even harder.
Thankfully, that’s not a problem that Morden has. I often face the issue of the Middle Ages being a bit too romanticized. There is no mention in many books of people with no teeth, dead teeth, dying teeth (sorry for my tooth obsession), body odor (seriously, can you imagine how bad people must have smelled back then?), horrible illnesses, and limbs being cut off from infection. These are details that many authors leave out. The brutal truth is, this period of time is dirty, dusty, infected and disgusting. People lived short lives. Kids became kings and kings were manipulated. A dirty scratch got a finger cut off. Women had almost no rights. While Morden doesn’t make a spectacle of these things, they are present in Arcanum, in passing observations and background noise, mostly. It is these small details that make the time period so believable, deep, and interesting.
Morden’s characters live in the kingdom of Carinthia which has suddenly lost the magical power it relies on. This reminds me a lot of the “what if we suddenly all lost electricity?” plot. The struggles are much the same, though the time period and location makes it a bit more interesting. Morden does a great job of blending advanced ideas with those that would be common in the Middle Ages. The interesting thing is, in this book, despite the historical setting and period, many of their ideas regarding magic are pretty advanced, but many of their social ideas are very, well, historical. That creates a fascinating mix of “back then” and “wow, that’s a pretty interesting idea” throughout the novel, and Morden mixes it all so very well.
Morden’s writing style makes it pretty easy to sink into this heady stew of ideas and history. The location comes alive and the characters are all real, and realistically flawed. The ideas and the situations are reasonably dealt with when put into context with the social norms of the time. Morden even touches on some harsher, more uncomfortable issues, like the treatment of Jews (which, historically, has always been pretty abysmal), the treatment of women, and the manipulation of the powerful. In fact, it is quite amazing to see how he uses his small cast of primary perspective characters to affect such an epic plot.
That being said, Arcanum is surprisingly long, and occasionally I felt like there was a bit too much fat that should have been trimmed in the editing process. Some scenes go on too long, which makes this book feel like it is longer than it really is. While it is all quite fascinating, a lot of the side plots, side stories, and character perspectives suffered a bit from bloat. And, like all books with multiple perspectives, some will be more interesting than others, and unfortunately, one of the less interesting ones gets quite a bit of stage time. While he does get more interesting as the book goes on, it takes time to get him to move that direction.
Arcanum is an interesting contrast of elements. It’s historical, but it is also, in many ways, cutting edge. It is epic, but the world the book deals with is actually surprisingly small and contained. There are forays into other places, discussions with, and about, other people. History is referenced and there are situations that arise that we all recognize, but by and large, the book focuses on one specific area, with a few specific characters. This novel is a slow burn, which is usually something that I’d struggle with, but due to the unique blend of history, I found myself enjoying it anyway. Some of the characters are more interesting than others, but the situations, ideas, and world makes up for them. My biggest complaint, as I said above, is the fact that the story felt a bit too bloated.
So what is my final verdict? Arcanum is the kind of historical fantasy I love. The small world contains an epic story that shows how a small group of people can make a huge impact. Morden deals with a lot of uncomfortable situations with poise and ease. He really brings this dark time period to life, and makes me wish that I could climb up a mountain and find a unicorn. Arcanum made me want to live in that enchanted world.