The Long Mynd by Edward P. Hughes
Baen Books, 1985
Price I paid: 25¢
Not long ago, back in the 1980s, the world had not yet heard of charming. But then came a strange and godlike mutation that affected one child in a million. That child would grow to be a Charmer—one who could, by an act of will, change the form of any substance: coal into diamonds, play money into real money, iron ore into armor plate, water and uranium ore into hydrogen bombs—and the charmed item would appear wherever the Charmer wanted. The White House, the Kremlin, anywhere. It was the end of the world, of course…
Hoo boy, this one was a slog. For a book with such an interesting premise, it really didn’t go anywhere with it. Plus it was long. At 319 pages, it’s one of the longer books I’ve reviewed. I got curious about page to price ratios since I only paid a quarter for this one, and it’s in the running for one of the lowest. The X-Men/Star Trek book beats it by a long shot, since it was about as long as this one and I only paid a penny for it (although if you factor in the shipping and handling it becomes a lot more reasonable). I just thought you should know that I felt the need to run those numbers. That’s how I spent my Saturday morning.
It does go to show that a longer book does not necessarily entail one with more plot. Very little happened in this book, and what did happen was so disconnected that it really felt like several short stories, maybe novellas, tied together to make a story that did not flow at all. Even the basic premise, that there are some people who are “Charmers,” was in the background for the majority of the novel. It’ll be hard to relate what actually happened in this one.
I want to start with the disappointing nature of the title, for one. This’ll really lay down the groundwork on what a weird and pointless journey this whole thing was. The title is theoretically great in a dumb way. It gives us the impression that this is going to be a book about psychics or something. Like maybe “mynd” is somehow different from “mind,” and by describing it as “long” means that, I dunno, it’s been metaphorically extended to include abilities that normal people can’t do. Something like that. I spent a lot of time in the pre-read phase trying to figure out just what this was supposed to mean, although on some intuitive level it made a sort of sense.
But no, the title doesn’t have anything to do with a vague concept of psychic powers or anything. You know where the title comes from? A place in the book. A place is named that. It’s a little area that the main character visits near the beginning of the novel, a place on the border of Wales and England. It’s a real place. The name means “Long Mountain.” The protagonist spends about one chapter there and then it hardly ever comes up again. But somebody felt the need to name the book after it.
So the main character, Dafydd Madoc Llewelyn, has the most stereotypically Welsh name in the world. This might surprise you, but he is from Wales. A place named Cwm Goch. That translates to Goch Valley, if you were wondering. Also “Cwm” is pronounced “Koom.” There’s not a lot I know about Welsh, but I know that, mainly thanks to Terry Pratchett. Discworld fans will be aware of Koom Valley, which translates to “Valley Valley.”
FUN FACT TIME
One of the few words that have passed from Welsh to English is “corgi.” You know, the adorable dog. The proper plural of that word is “corgwn.” Now go forth and be pedantic about that.
/FUN FACT TIME
In the beginning of the book we meet Dafydd as a little kid. He watches sheep for his dad and keeps an eye on the road for bandits. He meets some bandits, almost gets killed, and then meets this other guy who tells Dafydd about London and how awesome it is. Young Dafydd is impressed and figures he’ll go to London one day. Also we learn that Dafydd is a Charmer.
We cut to a few years later. Dafydd’s status as a Charmer has been made public, he’s run away from Cwm Goch, and he’s headed for London. He has adventures on the way, one of which involves becoming king of the Long Mynd for one night after hitting the old king in the head with a stick or something.
A note on all the major premises of this novel. For one, there are Charmers. They have the natural ability to create things out of thin air. They actually transmute things, I guess, but usually they just use the atmosphere as the thing they’re transmuting, so it’s effectively creating things from nothing. The one rule is that they’re not able to create anything organic, so they can’t make food or anything. This fact is important later.
Charmers started showing up about a generation ago. This led to nuclear war when it was discovered that a Charmer could just make a nuclear bomb and plop it wherever they wanted. Major cities were destroyed, and apparently civilization has regressed by a few hundred years.
At least that’s what we’re supposed to think. A lot of this book consists of
- Telling us, through Dafydd, a thing, and
- Reversing that thing.
That’s seriously the scheme of the whole book. Dafydd gets to London and discovers that it’s not all that backward. In fact, it’s about as advanced as we are today, with cars and TVs and restaurants and all that stuff. There just also happen to be a few Charmers. But then it turns out that there are a lot fewer Charmers than we’re led to believe. We also learn that a lot of what we’re told about Charmers is wrong.
But before he gets to London, Dafydd meets this guy named Emmett and his wife. They help Dafydd get through some stuff and get to London safely. But then it turns out that Emmett’s “wife” is really a dude named Calvin that Emmett was helping escape to London, too, and also that Emmett is really not what he told Dafydd when they first met but is actually a high-ranking government official. This starts the first of the “Oops! Reversal!” things that fill this book.
Normally Charmers are persecuted wherever they show up. Part of the reason Dafydd got run out of Wales was because he got caught Charming. London, though, is a haven for Charmers. They are given cushy jobs and taken care of. Dafydd decides quickly that he doesn’t want any of that.
A lot of creating a good character consists of giving them a goal, something they want, and then making the story about their attempts to get what they want and maybe learning a little something in the meantime. This story falls well short of that ideal. Dafydd doesn’t seem to want anything except for what is right is front of his face. He’s like a small child. He gets introduced to a woman and then decides that his goal is her. He gets a job and then decides he wants to do that job, but then as soon as he’s let off for the day he decides that he doesn’t want to do that job anymore and he tries to run away. He gets caught and sent on a mission for the leader of London, a guy named Chilwell, and decides that he wants to carry out the mission. But then he meets the woman they’re supposed to rescue on that mission, who tells him that she might not want to go back to London, so what he wants now is to stay with her and go on the run again.
This happens over and over and over and over and over and over
You can’t even say that Dafydd is a good exposition character because it turns out that everything he learns over the course of the narrative is wrong.
The mission I mentioned was to go to Ireland in an airship and rescue a woman named Numa from the Irish, who tend to burn Charmers alive.
You’d think that such a mission might involve Dafydd’s using his Charming skills to do all sorts of amazing and interesting things, but no, none of that happens. This book fails spectacularly at coming up with interesting uses for this power. Dafydd uses it to make shotguns and then Charms shells into the shotguns. It was fairly neat the first time we saw it, in the first couple of pages of the book, but after that it’s apparent that Dafydd is sort of a one-trick pony.
Calvin is also on this mission. He does more Charming that Dafydd. What he does is to Charm up a bunch of smoke and they use that smoke as cover to rescue Numa. He then does this again later in the story.
This mission, which takes up about the whole middle third of the book, really just serves as an excuse to get Dafydd to reveal his own little secret. See, most Charmers can only make stuff. Dafydd is special because he can de-Charm. He can make stuff go away. I don’t see why this is supposed to be special. If Charming consists of turning something into something else, I feel like every Charmer can make stuff go away, in a manner of speaking. If they can turn air into chairs, then what’s the big deal about turning chairs back into air? Ugh.
But the fact that Dafydd can do that is a big deal. When they get back to London (after Dafydd tries to escape several times), he gets called up in front of Mayor Chilwell. Chilwell offers Dafydd an even cushier job than the one had ran away from before. We also get another big reversal of core premises of the narrative.
See, nuclear power is supposed to be outlawed at this point. It’s made clear that any Charmer caught making uranium or whatever will be dealt with very harshly. But Chilwell’s the leader and he can make exceptions if he wants to. The magnificent city of London runs on nuclear power, and Chilwell wants to hire Dafydd to create nuclear fuel for the reactor. Even better, since Dafydd can de-Charm, he’ll be able to get rid of the waste that the reactor produces quickly and safely. In return, Dafydd gets unlimited money.
Quick neat thing: the money in this society is now minted from ivory, because it’s organic and can’t be Charmed. Things like gold and silver and diamonds are completely devalued.
Dafydd responds in a manner that we’re quite used to seeing at this point. At first he’s excited, but then he talks to a women he met at the beginning of the book and changes his mind, saying he’ll be no man’s lapdog and freedom and whatever.
This particular decision made me like Dafydd even less than I already did. He’s been given a position that would benefit him greatly in terms of money and influence, and in the meantime all he has to do is provide power for a city using his inbuilt abilities to create fuel and get rid of the waste, something that he’ll be called on to do maybe once a month or so, and it’s not like it’s particularly difficult. He just shows up, does his job, and goes back to his extremely lavish lifestyle. In the meantime, the many, many inhabitants of London will be able to live in greater comfort than a lot of the rest of the world. And it’s not even like Chilwell is a tyrant or a bad man. He just wants to provide a safe and happy place for people to live.
And yet Dafydd just has to go “I can’t work for anybody besides myself. I go it alone.”
And all these people get deprived of that.
In the meantime, the woman that Dafydd rescued earlier, Numa, has gone missing. Dafydd basically fell in love with her earlier, so he goes looking for her. He’s led on a winding chase through the London underground (not to be confused with the London Underground) where he finally catches up to her, explains why he’s leaving town, asks her to come along, and is rebuffed.
We also get yet another major reversal of a basic premise. Remember how I said that Charmers couldn’t make organic matter? Well, it turns out that Numa can. She cures a guy of his blindness using her abilities, and at another point makes a tree.
Dafydd leaves town. Just as he’s about to despair, he meets up with Emmett, the guy who rescued him earlier, Numa, and Zoe, the lady he met right after arriving in London. Emmett then gives us a great big huge exposition dump for the remainder of the book.
Basically it’s a retelling of all the plot points of the book, mostly minor ones because that’s what most of the plot points were, and how Dafydd didn’t see what was really going on. Yeah, that’s right, the whole book is turned into “Remember when this happened? Well actually that happened.” Over and over and over and…
And then London explodes.
Yeah, as soon as our folks get out of range, the whole city goes up. Why? Well it turns out that that guy Numa un-blinded earlier had a grudge against Chilwell or something and was also a Charmer but Charming doesn’t work if you’re blind and since Numa just sort of out of nowhere made him able to see again he decided to Charm a nuclear bomb and destroyed the city just as these other characters conveniently left.
And I think that’s basically the book.
I spent so much of this novel bouncing between bored and exasperated. Nothing would happen for so long, and then something would happen, and then later we’d get told that what we thought happened didn’t actually happen and what really happened was different in some minor detail that somebody else seems to think was important.
That’s the book in a nutshell. But is also had a Welsh guy in it, so there’s that.
I can’t find much information on Edward P. Hughes. The ISFDB has an entry saying that this book was his only standalone novel, but the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says that this book was his only novel, although it was linked to his other works which also dealt with the Charming premise. But the latter reference also calls this book part of the “Liam McGrath” sequence, which is weird because this book did not feature a Liam McGrath among it’s many, many pointless characters. It’s also worth noting the the SFE doesn’t have any information on the author’s birth year, whether he’s dead yet, or where he’s from.
That’s so weird!
The book did have a few redeeming features. Mainly it’s the premise that’s neat, but even that was dealt with in a totally unsatisfying way.
The thing I think about is how a book with this premise, these Charmers, could go one of two ways, and neither option is good. Either they could be all-powerful, because come on, if you can create things out of thin air you can literally do anything with a bit of imagination. It’s clear that these powers can do a lot. Dafydd is able to make shotguns, which have lots of moving parts and stuff. Characters that powerful shouldn’t fit into a story because there’s nothing that can potentially stop them from achieving their goals.
So an author might feel the need to offset that problem by adding in a whole bunch of rules, whether intrinsic or societal, to limit what a person with these powers can do. The problem with that is that the rules might be either byzantine or completely arbitrary, likely both, and so it’s no fun to read about. You’re spending the entire reading experience trying to keep all these rules in your head, probably wondering why they’re rules in the first place, and you’re not enjoying the story.
This book didn’t really take either route. It just had our character infrequently use his powers, and when it does it’s in completely unimaginative ways. At one point he even gets called out for it. Somebody’s like “So you made a shotgun and shot your way through this den of weird subterranean guys when you could have just made a ladder and climbed out?”
If I skipped that part of the plot, don’t worry, because it was really pointless except for Dafydd getting called out for being a doofus.
But while there were some rules about how Charming could be used, they ended up being broken all over the place. No organic matter? There’s a lady who can do that! You’re not supposed to make nuclear stuff? We’ll make an exception this time!
It’s not fair to establish rules for your universe for the sole purpose of breaking them. That’s our writing tip for the day. An even bigger tip might be to not make that the entire point of your novel.
And to think, I started this book because I liked the title and the cover. That’ll show me.