The Mad Throne by Brad Munson
Popular Library, 1979
Price I paid: 75¢
Lawrence Connor. Brilliant actor. Riding the crest of a sensational star role.
What had happened to him?
He had waked from a terrifying trance to find himself trapped in another man’s body—in a nightmarish realm of giants and killer warriors, arrogant overlords and oppressed slaves, seductive temptresses and endangered beauties.
How had he gotten there? How could he return to earth?
These were questions that he did not have time to answer. He was too busy fighting for his own survival….
Well, here’s an interesting one. Straight off we’ve got a certain disconnect between the cover of the book and the contents. Heck, we’ve got a disconnect between part of the cover of the book and the rest of the cover of the book. This thing straight-up says that it’s a science-fiction novel, and yet here we have a dragon and some knights and a statement that we’re to expect “Bright swords and black magic,” not to mention a “swirling saga of enchantment.”
The line between science fiction and fantasy can get sort of fuzzy sometimes. As good a rule of thumb as “fantasy has trees, sci-fi has rivets” is, there are times when the two mesh together and defy that statement. We can pin down Star Wars as “space fantasy” since it’s got magic and enchanted swords and the like, and I’m sure that there are science fiction novels that take place in a forested world where high technology is indistinguishable from magic. Perhaps something like Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light can be cited there.
And then there’s The Mad Throne. This book had about as much science fiction in it as The Chronicles of Narnia. The entire time I was reading it I was looking out for something that would explain what was going on in some kind of sci-fi way, even it turned out to be unsatisfying. Nothing of the sort ever happened. In fact, there wasn’t even much of a fantasy explanation as to what was going on. The big reveal turned out to be, essentially, “somebody did something.” That something involved mind swaps of some variety, but whether that method involved magic or technology or psychic powers or whatever was left up in the air.
And so while I’m tempted to say that this book was mislabeled as science fiction, I can’t say that with absolute certainty. That’s very strange. The rest of the book was somewhat strange as well, but actually in a pretty good way.
The Internet tells me that this was Brad Munson’s only genre novel. The last time we had a one-shot by an author it turned out to be awful. In this case, it’s nearly the opposite. This was a pretty darn good fantasy novel. It defied a few of the typical tropes and added a few neat little ideas of its own. Color me impressed.
So we start out with a literary device that probably has a name although I don’t know it. It’s one I’ve seen a lot, although usually in visual media like a show or a movie. For lack of a better term, I call it the “in medias res fakeout.”
So we know that this book, just from looking at the cover and reading the back, is set in a fantasy world with kings and betrayals and all that sort of thing. The book opens right into that. Our hero realizes he’s been poisoned and so leaps up to kill the evil king that killed his father and married his mother. Sound familiar?
Yep, our hero is an actor and the book opens up with him in the middle of a presentation of Hamlet. Lawrence Connor is playing the Dane and as the curtain closes, we get to see a bit of the life he’s about to leave behind.
He’s an absolute jerk. Seriously, all his thoughts are about how much he hates the other cast members and thinks that they’re terrible and that this whole thing is below him. To be fair, they’re all jerks, too, with the exception of Melendy, the girl who was playing Ophelia. Lawrence thinks she’s dumb but pretty. The stage director, Houston Dodge, is a slimy bastard, too. I only bring that up now because by the time he showed up again, I’d forgotten who he was.
After the play wraps up there’s a party. Lawrence is upset because a friend of his, Jerry Scalla, has recently gone into a coma for what appears to be no reason. Jerry isn’t alone in this, apparently whatever plague this is has affected a lot of people in the entertainment industry, but this is the first time one has hit someone Lawrence actually cares about. In his misery he gets too drunk and then begs Melendy to come home with him. She agrees, they do the Horizontal Achy Breaky Heart, and then he goes to sleep.
We then cut to the fantasy part of the novel. Lawrence wakes up and everything is crazy. Apparently his name is Datros now and he’s being accompanied by a large man named Blunt. He’s also been chased by several scary-lookin’ dudes who want him for some reason. He’s on the run and he doesn’t even know what he’s on the run from.
He tries to get some information out of Blunt, who claims to be a sorcerer’s apprentice, but Blunt just think’s he’s going crazy. Interestingly, unlike most magic-users in fantasy settings, Blunt is huge and muscular and dumb as a cinderblock. Still, he seems like a good guy.
A lot of what we get over the next buncha pages is exposition but it’s important so bear with me. There’s a king and a kingdom and a throne and all that stuff. It’s all called Lakmardajan. Datros is supposed to be the next Lakmardajan, so he’s running away.
Apparently being king isn’t something you actually want to happen in this world. An interesting twist.
Also, being king is by virtue of merit and not heredity or anything like that. So what we now know is that Datros is not only totally badass that they want to make him king, he still doesn’t want the throne. I’ll admit it, it was about this time that the book caught me in its claws.
This was a fairly long book with a lot of plot, but it all seemed so important at the time that it’s hard for me to cut out so much of it. I guess I’m just going to suggest you read it yourself if you’re into this kind of thing?
Connor finally meets up with a woman named Dee. It turns out that she’s also transplanted from Earth. Also she was an actress. And further also she’s totally hot. They get together, like, immediately.
It turns out there are a lot of displaced people and Dee has met many of them. She takes Connor back to their hideout and they get introduced and there’s some more exposition. Probably the most important bit, not because any of the plot really hinged on it but because I thought it was neat, is that there isn’t very much metal on this world, so things tend to be made of ceramics. Their version of a blacksmith is a ceramics master.
In one of the more touching bits of the book, we learn who the ceramics master for this group is. Back on Earth he was a famous dancer, famed for his skill and agility and strength and so forth. In this world, he’s been placed into a grossly fat man, barely capable of even standing up. This has left him in a deep depression, despite the fact that his skill as a ceramics master makes him one of the most important people in the community. The idea of being a master of some skill and then being transferred to a body against my will that is completely incapable of even attempting that skill is terrifying. Somehow it’s even scarier than the idea of just losing the ability by accident.
The group decides that the thing to do is to find all the other displaced people. At some point it also becomes important to get Connor/Datros to the capital city to make him the rightful king. I wasn’t too sure on that point what was going on. Gathering up the people, though, was pretty clever.
See, all the people coming over are members of the entertainment industry. Actors, stagehands, directors, special effects people, and so on. They all seem to be drawn from that same community. So they figure that they ought to do what they were made to do and travel around putting on skits and plays. In the meantime they can see if they can find people who will join them. Their method for this was great.
The plan was to put on a play from Earth and see who recognizes it. What’s the most recognizable dramatist you can imagine? Someone that every actor or director or whatever will instantly recognize?
Steven Spielberg, obviously!
Well, they don’t go that route and instead opt for some guy named Shakespeare.
All I’m saying is that if it were me I’d be writing stuff that goes “Behold, ye gentles, the tale of a park most Jurassick!”
But no, they put on Hamlet. Remember how the book started with Hamlet? I’d call it Chekhov’s Play, but Chekhov was a playwright, so that’s getting dangerously meta in a way that I’m not entirely comfortable with.
The plan works and they gather a rather large group that also involved several of the members of Connor’s production. You know, the ones he hated? I’m sure that won’t come back and bite him in the ass.
(It almost does.)
The group devises a plan that’ll get Datros/Connor back to the city of Lakmardajan. I guess part of the goal is to see if this crazy city has something to do with why everybody has crossed over to this fantasy realm. Also, rumor has it that whoever wears the crown of Lakmardajan goes crazy, hence the title of the book, I guess. Maybe that’s connected, too.
The plan, essentially, is to crash the city and claim the crown. Not exactly subtle. There are also fireworks and stuff, so that helps. It’s an interesting bit where they use Blunt’s magic to set off the fireworks to make it look like Blunt is now some kind of amazing wizard instead of a mere apprentice. I like that.
Things go swimmingly until they arrive at the coronation chamber. Everybody thinks the crown itself is what drives people mad, so Connor is hesitant to put it on. That’s when Dee shows up again.
She’s been there the whole book, and has been a major motivating force, but what’s more important about her is that she’s constantly ticked off about how sexist the culture of this fantasy land is. She gives Connor hell whenever he slips into that mode, as well. She’s tough, she’s forward-thinking, and she’s ready to jump right into the action. A far cry from the busty dumb actress she was before she came over.
So Dee jumps up and says that she’s going to put the crown on. She figures that it’s important that everybody up to this point to wear the crown and go nuts has been a man. So she puts the crown on and things go to hell.
It turns out that somebody is trying to use the crown to come over and be king. That somebody just wants to rule, but everybody has rejected the transition and gone crazy. Dee is just strong enough to not only resist the takeover, but to actually talk to it.
Turns out it’s Houston Dodge, the stage director from the beginning of the book.
He apparently wants to be king?
How is he doing this?
How does he even know about this world?
What does he expect to do once he’s king?
We don’t learn the answers to any of those questions. What we do know is that the people who have come over already are all people Dodge has worked with in the past. Specifically people he likes. He’s been giving them new lives that he thinks will fit them and make them happy. I guess that’s…kind of sweet?
Still, he’s terrible. He tries to make Dee go crazy so she’ll kick him out and he can try again. That’s when Blunt steps in. Good old Blunt.
In standard fashion, it turns out that the dumb character has inner depth that allows him to use compassion and wisdom to save the day. He offers Dodge his own body, but not entirely. Doing this willingly allows Dodge and Blunt to merge personalities, combining the best of each into new being that is both powerful and kind. And it works. The sacrifice flings him straight up the ladder of the meritocracy (people are ranked by “Deeds of Power”) and they make him king.
That’s not quite the ending of the book, although it might as well have been. Oddly enough, it also does not end with everybody going back home to their original bodies. That doesn’t happen at all. What happens is that we learn that Melendy, remember Melendy?, is there and she’s pregnant. The last thing that happens is that she gives birth and, for no reason that I could really divine, decides to get Blunt/Dodge to transfer her into the mind of the baby.
What? Why? That doesn’t make a lick of sense.
He does and the book ends.
Man, up to that point the book really had me. Then it had that weird coda that didn’t make any sense. It really didn’t need it. It had no reason to happen, nothing led us to believe it was even a possibility, and it was supposed to be a super happy ending.
Oh my god this book was a 300 page fantasy version of “The Aristocrats,” wasn’t it?
I left out a lot of the details that made this a 300 page book. One thing I liked was a group called The Skalds, a sort of storyteller/secret police force that was chasing Connor throughout most of the book. They were a bit of a red herring for a while, leading us to believe that they were the malevolent instigator of this whole thing, but really they just faded into the background.
The book itself was a pretty good yarn, though. I think I said that already but it still stands. I wasn’t really hooked on it because of the setting, which is usually the thing in a fantasy novel that makes me keep reading. Instead it was the mystery of what was actually going on and how it might be resolved. This is a thing that is more in common with a non-fantasy book.
Of course, what also kept me going was the possibility that it would turn out to be a science fiction book after all, like maybe this whole thing was a computer simulation or an alien experiment or even a John Carter of Mars thing en masse. I was definitely left cold there. Why oh why did Popular Library market this as a science fiction novel? That is the thing I will likely never understand.
And why is this the only book by Brad Munson that I can find?
Wait! Hold up! See, the only source I checked up to this point was the ISFDB. He had only one thing listed there. I did an Amazon search and found that the guy has two more books, at least.
But neither of them seem much like this one. In fact, one of them seems to be a behind-the-scenes look at Men in Black II. It certainly appears to be the same guy, though. Got his own Amazon page and everything. Still alive and apparently decently tech-savvy. Maybe he’s got a Google alert tied to his name or this book and he’ll find me and he can explain to me why this really decent book had such a weird ending. Maybe it’s just me?
My final question to you all is this: Why are fantasy novels always so damn long?