I love fantasies set at colleges, so when I heard about Linda Haldeman’s Esbae: A Winter’s Tale (1981), I had to track it down and read it. The titular Esbae is a spirit who is found wanting by some greater power, and cast down to earth. It attaches itself to an awkward college student, Sophie, and is caught up in a magical battle between good and evil.
The three main human characters are all to be found in Dr. Leo Ernst’s history class. (We know that this is fantasy, because even after an ice storm, everybody goes to class!) The first is Sophie Claiborne, a clumsy but brainy young woman. The second is Chuck Holmes, big man on campus, who is in danger of flunking out of school. Finally, there is Leo Ernst himself, a mild-mannered, music-loving professor who is attracted to Sophie. Leo’s interest in, and later relationship with, Sophie feels kind of sketchy when reading it in 2019. I told myself, “well, this is an old book, and anyway, these things do happen sometimes.”
When Leo mentions the demon Asmodeus in his lecture and how ceremonial magicians would invoke him to learn the secrets of mathematics, Chuck gets the bright idea to summon this demon to salvage his grades. He gets Sophie to help him, but she thinks he’s just working on a paper about Asmodeus until it’s too late. When she finally figures out what he’s up to, she commits a good deed while trying to stop him, and this good deed is what binds Esbae to her.
Esbae then proceeds to, essentially, become Sophie’s house-elf. It calls her Master, cooks her meals, cleans her apartment, and styles her hair. I should also mention that it takes the form of a little Moorish boy Sophie saw once in an opera. And then a sequence of events occurs that made me wonder what the hell I was reading. Sophie, this kindly girl who rescues puppies and has compassion even for undeserving louts like Chuck, gets mad at Esbae and beats it with her umbrella. She feels bad about this and runs to Leo, who comes over and examines it (in kind of a creepy way, too), and then this soft-spoken professor tells her not to apologize, because Esbae feels that it deserved this treatment. This sequence feels like a complete departure from their characters as they were written up until this scene. It also feels racist, especially as Esbae at this time has the appearance of a small dark-skinned child, and especially in light of some racially-tinged poems that Sophie and Leo recite to each other in a later scene.
I considered DNFing then, but Esbae is a short book and I was already more than half finished with it. I figured maybe Sophie was going to learn some kind of lesson from all this later, but nope. Esbae goes right on serving Sophie as if nothing happened, and eventually makes a great sacrifice for her when Asmodeus threatens. It’s still possible that Haldeman was trying to make an anti-slavery point — for example, Esbae overhears a lecture about emancipation one day while hanging around on campus — but if so, this point does not come through in the story itself. I found myself wishing Hermione Granger would show up with her S.P.E.W. buttons and throw Esbae a knit hat.
If all of that were taken out, Esbae would have been an enjoyable book. Haldeman’s prose is beautifully descriptive and dryly funny in places, and the plot largely hinges on kindnesses given and returned. The treatment of Esbae’s slavery in the middle of the book is a big icky blot on the story, though, and makes me hesitate to recommend it.