The Road to Corlay by Richard Cowper
Pocket Books, 1978
Price I paid: 90¢
On the Eve of the Fourth Millenium
a slowly-building civilization, struggling out of the rubble of the Drowning, was crushed beneath the scepter of a powerful and repressive Church.
But on the Eve of the Fourth Millenium
the sound of a magical pipe was heard, and the air was filled with songs of freedom and enlightenment.
And on the Eve of the Fourth Millenium
the Boy appeared, bringing the gift of sacrilege, a harbinger of the future, heralding the arrival of the White Bird of Dawning.
It is the coming of a New Age….
A glorious future bearing the presents of the past!
I’m sorry that this post is up a little later in the day than I normally make them. Part of it is that I’ve been very distractible these past couple of days so it took me a little extra time to read the book. Part of that distraction, I’m proud to say, has to do with Alton Brown’s soft pretzel recipe, which I spent most of the morning making and turned out A-MAZE-ING. Oh my god these pretzels people. I’ve eaten so many that I’m on carb overload and I had to finish the last fifty or so pages of this book pacing around the house like my cat does when she wants attention but not from anybody in the house at the moment.
If I made a plate of these pretzels a Patreon reward it would be the highest-funded Patreon of all time.
The other reason I’ve been distracted is because of the book itself. This makes two weeks in a row where the book has been pretty darn great, although this one had some things that bothered me that I’ll talk about soon enough. For now, though, I want to point out how slowly I progressed through it. It wasn’t for my normal reason of “Oh gods this book has seventy more pages I need to find something more interesting like putting WD-40 on all the doors in the house,” but rather it gave me a lot to noodle over. That’s a good thing, but it bodes ill for self-imposed deadlines. I had to stop quite often to just digest what I’d read (as well as pretzel).
So the author, “Richard Cowper,” is interesting. He was really John Middleton Murry, Jr., and he has a Wikipedia page. His science fiction and fantasy got to be pretty popular, so I guess it’s my fault for never having heard of him. Either that or his popularity didn’t stick around, for some inexplicable reason, after he stopped writing in 1986.
The reason I picked the book up, though, had to do with a bit on the back of the book that claimed it was “In the towering tradition of A Canticle for Leibowitz.” Now I’ve said this before (probably), but that book is a strong contender for my favorite. Ever. So when some publisher feels the need to compare a book to it, I’m skeptical. After all, how many things are heralded as the next Dune or Lord of the Rings or Star Wars and end up falling flat on their faces? Since often enough those kinds of things are so lauded because they’re just complete ripoffs, it’s to be expected, and so I assumed this book would end up as pure garbage. Still, a ripoff of Miller’s book would be interesting in its own right, at least as something to mock, so I gave it a go.
It was quite good. I think I owe somebody a coke.
The first 75 or so pages of this book were a novella prologue to the main story, originally published separately. Some editions of the book don’t include it, and I’m glad my copy did because without it I expect I’d’ve had a lot less of an idea as to what was going on. It’s entitled “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” and if you’ll excuse me I need to put on some Pink Floyd.
It tells the story of Tom, a boy with who can play an interesting double-pipe. He plays it extremely well. In fact he plays it so well that he does magic with it, at least of a sort. He’s traveling with a wandering storyteller named Old Peter, who is taking him to York so that he can go to school, learn to read and write, and join the Church like his mother wants.
Also, it is the year 2999 and everything has gone all wacky.
I’d say that things have gone all medieval, but that’s not quite right. The story doesn’t read like it’s in the Middle Ages. It reads more like a fantasy novel. For one, there’s Tom and his magic pipes, who learned to play them from a wizard named Morfedd. It was Morfedd’s idea that Tom go to York, and it seems that it’s all wrapped up in some prophecy.
The pair walk that way, meet some people so we get some exposition, and then finally arrive. By the time they get there Peter has grown fond of Tom and tries to convince him to forget this school business and join him out on the open road. Tom’s pipe playing is so fantastic that it’s earning them both a lot of money.
Oh, did I mention that one of the reasons Tom is so amazing at playing this weird double pipe is that his tongue was split in half by Morfedd? Yeah, gross. But neat.
Tom says that he must do what he set out to do. They arrive right around Christmas. Everyone is looking at the Year 3000 as a sort of world-wide turning point. There are whispers of the return of something called “The White Bird,” something which Tom believes devoutly. In fact, he has a song about it that he plays. When Tom plays, it’s more than music. It evokes images, changes minds, and makes other people believe too. On the eve of the year 3000 he sits up on a wall and starts playing. Everybody near stops and listens, completely enraptured, as a great White Bird appears over the city, when from nowhere an arrow flies through the air and kills Tom dead.
They find the guy who did it, a guard named Gyre. He’s as confused as to why he did it as anyone else. Old Peter, in his grief, sets out to tell the story of Tom to everyone who will hear it. Gyre joins him, since it seems to be he had no control over what he did and perhaps it was Tom himself who made him do it. They set out, and a new religion begins to spread.
And that’s the prologue. Those seventy-five pages got me hooked. Something about, well, everything, was just so amazing. It was written so beautifully that I got dragged into the setting. This sounds corny, but it’s like I could feel the setting around me as the story unfolded. This is not something that happens to me all that often. Part of the reason A Canticle for Leibowitz stands out so much is that it does that to me, even though it’s not an especially happy setting. The Once and Future King does it, too. In a way, this story is like a combination of my two favorite books, which is just freaky to think about.
And then the actual book begins and it does some things that I was less than thrilled with. It had a lot of the same in it, though. Plenty to keep me interested. We learn a bit more about this world and what goes on in it, so that’s cool.
The Road to Corlay picks up about 18 years after Tom got killed. The story has spread throughout the “Seven Kingdoms,” which is England in this future. England is now an archipelago, because one of the things that set this future off is, get this, global warming.
Here’s the thing, this book was written back in the seventies. I feel like global warming is a more recent concern than that. I mean, yeah, it was going on back then, but our knowledge of it seems newer than that. That’s weird.
Anyway, global warming melted the ice caps a whole bunch and flooded the world and a lot of people died.
So here we’ve got somebody rather confusingly named Thomas, who gets picked up by a ship after being found in the sea, within a hair’s breadth of death. They manage to wrestle him back to life and drop him off with some Kinsmen, who are the followers of the new religion of the White Bird of Kinship. Kinsmen are persecuted by the official Church, which is never named such but bears striking resemblances to the Catholic Church.
A family takes in Thomas, and of particular note is their daughter Jane. Jane has precognitive powers, called hueish, which caused her to know that Thomas would come into her life. She also knows that she and Thomas will fall in love, though at first she’s coy about it.
What follows, then, is discovering Thomas’s true purpose and fulfilling his mission. There’s one catch, though, and it’s the thing that bothered me about this book.
While using her psychic powers, Jane picks up a trace of another personality lurking in Thomas’s brain. It’s some guy named Carver, and he’s from the far past.
Then we cut back in time to a bunch of scientists studying Out of Body Experiences. They’ve got this whole drug cocktail/brain shocking thing that makes it happen. Anyway, one of their number, a guy named Michael Carver, was recently hooked up to the thing and he’s now in a coma with little to no brain activity. His girlfriend, Rachel, is distraught, and his colleagues have no idea how to wake him up. Over the course of the story, they find a means of looking at the images his brain is recognizing, and what they discover is that somehow or another he’s inside the other story we’ve been reading. His Out of Body Experience has sent him a thousand years in the future.
Man, what is up with that? This intrusion of the present, or at least the near future, bugged me. The book was doing fine on its own. It didn’t need this part of the story, and it turns out not to have much point. It’s distracting and off-putting. It upset me.
A much better digression in the book is that if often follows a guy named Brother Francis, a guy who fell in with the Kinsmen after being sent by the Church to investigate their heresy. He became convinced of their message and joined up, but now the Church is after him for his apostasy. He holds in his possession the actual pipe that Tom played at York as he was being shot, and he is supposed to take it to Thomas at Corlay.
Thomas is also on the way to Corlay because he has a copy of the prophecies of Morfedd. Michael Carver is on the way to Corlay because he is stuck in Thomas’s head to no purpose.
The book doesn’t have much of a climax. It just sort of progresses until Francis meets Thomas in some town that isn’t Corlay. Thomas and Jane have been captured and put in prison by agents of the Church. Francis is able to convince those agents to set Thomas free because he is a secret agent. Everything is going well until one of the agents gets suspicious, pulls out a crossbow, and fires. Thomas is hit and he dies.
Back in the 80s, Michael’s wife and colleagues watch all this with wonder. As Thomas dies, it turns out that Michael wakes up, thinking it was all a dream. Happy ending there, I guess, but I still don’t see the point.
The book fades out with Jane finally reaching Corlay. She’s pregnant, and it seems that her child will carry on some other kind of prophecy in the next book.
I guess it’s kind of a cliffhanger ending? There are two more books in the series, and I’d like to read them, if only because this world moved me. I might often say a book is good, but I don’t often find myself concerned with its beauty. This one was an exception. I want to learn more about the world in 3000. I want to know about this weird psychic magic and how this new church of the White Bird plays out. I was fascinated.
And you know, I kind of want to see how the intrusion from the 20th century works itself out, too. For something that felt so shoehorned in and out-of-place, I wonder if the author doesn’t make it work in the sequels. Or maybe he drops it? I dunno, that would be less satisfying.
One of the things you expect from a book like this is the interesting (mis)understanding of the past that the characters have. As you might likewise expect, they have legends of ancient people with magic mirrors that show images from far away, giant metal birds that carry people through the skies, and all that sort of thing. The best thing was in the prologue, when Old Peter was telling an ancient story about a man named “Amulet.” The story itself was Hamlet, although a few things (among them the name) had changed over a millenium. The best thing was Peter’s description of the final swordfight, which described “swords made of deadly light.”
Hamlet with lightsabers! Fantastic!
The Church itself is built upon the idea that man, in his hubris, brought on the flood that killed so many people, and that technology for that reason is stagnated. That sort of thing is a bit familiar, sure, but I can’t quite work out why it worked so well. I think it’s because it wasn’t at all preachy or cynical or anything. This world of 3000+ AD, while it had its problems, was quite nice and, for lack of a better word, redeemed. It had a ways to go before it became any kind of paradise, but it seems this whole new religion thing was working toward that.
I tend to like science fiction that deals with religion, so long as it’s not all snarky about it or anything. I’m not a religious person myself, so this is perhaps surprising, but I suppose I’m drawn toward the numinous in certain stories. If anything, I find it interesting to see how faith and dogma and all that develop over the course of a future history. I would go so far as to say it’s my favorite theme in science fiction, when done right. This book did it right.
The beauty of this book lay in its positivity and sense of wonder. For that, I have to give it a lot of credit. It wasn’t perfect, by any means, but it’s well worth a read.
2 thoughts on “The Road to Corlay”
It was a great first book of the trilogy, but Cowper drops the 20th century bit in the last two books. Odd, isn’t it? If you own the Pocket Books edition, what’s up with the aerial in the back on the boat on the cover?
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Glad to see he drops that weird present-day aspect.
I was wondering about the aerial too! It just doesn’t fit at all. The only thing I could figure is that it somehow referred to the “presents of the past” the back synopsis alluded to, although the book actually didn’t have anything to do with that.