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The Demon of Scattery by Poul Anderson and Mildred Downey Broxon3 stars

Buy from IndieBoundThis book is actually not much more than a novella, with close to four dozen of its 193 pages taken up by a wealth of Hugo-winning artist Alicia Austin’s curiously stiff and two-dimensional line drawings. And the text is in a really large point-size, too. Still, Ace was really proactive in providing work for artists in the early ’80s with illustrated releases such as these, and doing what it could to remove the stigma that illustrated storytelling was strictly a children’s affair.

The story is often quite good, though it never veers too far from a predictable course. We’re back in the 9th century, as a trio of viking ships arrives at the island of Scattery off the Irish coast, having already had a successful run of raiding and pillaging throughout the Isles. Led by the grim yet valorous Halldor, the Norsemen waylay a group of hapless monks in a lonely tower. But Halldor’s son, Ranulf, is nearly killed in the brief meleé when one lucky novice drops a very large rock on his head. Ranulf’s life is saved by Brigit, a nun captured by Halldor on a previous raid. Impressed by Brigit’s nobility in the face of all she has had to suffer (women tended to have it rough back then), her willingness to aid her captors, and admittedly intimidated by her devotion to her Christian God, Halldor promises Brigit her freedom if Ranulf recovers. Though of course, Halldor has no qualms about taking Brigit for himself.

But Brigit’s faith in Christ is wavering even as she seems to have instilled some in Ranulf, and her crisis only increases as Halldor’s ships return to the island one day after having sailed off to sack an abbey some miles away. After an anguished monk commits suicide at having felt abandoned by Christ, a desperately embittered Brigit has a supernatural encounter with a pagan goddess, her namesake, that spurs her towards fulfilling her vengeful desires upon the vikings. (Needless to say, this story will likely displease devout Christians, and is thus not recommended to them.)

It’s fairly easy to figure out what transpires next just by looking at the cover of the book. Yet the sequence is still exciting. Even as the story can be criticized for its predictable turns — the scene in which Brigit draws Halldor into her trap practically screams “plot point,” as there’s really no reason for him to agree to go along with it — it still makes for pleasurable reading due to strong characterization given to Halldor and Brigit, who come across as believable people rather than mythic archetypes filling stock roles in a stock legend. The prose is crisp and accessible, except for an incongruous prologue that is written in an annoyingly pompous high-myth style for no good reason. There are also a couple of appendices, detailing the historical and mythical roots of the story. Neat stuff.

My biggest criticism is directed towards Alicia Austin’s drawings, most of which, to be blunt, are the artistic equivalent of potato salad with raisins. They’re the very definition of inedible blandness. Her linework is overly mannered, her subjects — even when running or engaged in battle — are as rigid as mannequins, and she has a poor grasp of spatial relationships, leading to drawings that look utterly flat even when they depict large vistas. And she can’t draw water. Surely there was someone better Ace could have tapped, but she was, for whatever reason, something of a fan favorite in her day. Mainly, the drawings added nothing to my enjoyment or understanding of what is, in essence, a simple tale. I found myself visualizing the story in my own way, as with any other non-illustrated novel.

The Demon of Scattery will appeal to fans of romantic fantasy in the mood for light reading. I think honest-to-goodness legends could live up to a higher standard than that, but there’s nothing wrong at all with a tale that demands nothing more of you than to be enjoyed.