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The Phantom Queen

Reviewed: December 18, 2002
By: Ven Begamudré
Publisher: Coteau Books
296 Pages, $12.95

Ven Begamudré once had a yen to work in international administration. It led him to study the Russian language and culture. This, combined with an interest in folklore and fantasy, was part of the road he took took to write this novel.

The other part is a joke he likes to tell about himself. It seems that a young woman approached him at a workshop in 1978 and asked him if he would write a magical story about music. She was fourteen then and he presented her with a copy of this novel when she was 38. Getting there took him a while.

The Phantom Queen borrows from one of the oldest of story telling traditions in that it is a story framed within another story. This is a less than common device these days, but it dates back to Homer's Odyssey, and probably to before that.

The story opens in the court of the Phantom Queen with the arrival of an ancient, blind storyteller. One night he enthrals the court with the tale of a struggle between the forces of darkness and the forces of light, between the devil and the agents of God. It is, not incidentally the story of the fall of a nation and the spiritual growth of two people who would never have been thought to be warriors of the light when they were born.

The eldest is Sasha, later to be named Nevsky, an orphan shepherd boy who is transformed into an adult wizard by a journey into the world beyond our own. The transformation gives him power and some knowledge, but he does not mature in his heart and soul as we do by aging naturally, and so part of the story is about how he becomes a real person over a period of many years.

In the peculiar Slavic state of Mir, of which his village is a part, Tsar Leo is upset that he has no male heir.  In a fit of insanity he makes a pact with the devil (Dhiavol) to give up half his kingdom for a son. It is a wish spoken half in jest, but someone is listening, and the upshot of it is that he gets two sons - twins just the sort of succession problem that every monarch would really like to avoid.

By this means the dhiavol gets pretty much the entire kingdom, since the eventual quarrels between the highly competitive boys eventually splits the country in half.

Before that, however, Nevsky, who witnessed all of this and understood it pretty well from the outset, saves the life of a baby girl, first from the powers of darkness and then from her own superstitious kin.  Though hardly an adult himself in his experience of the world, he raises the child, named Ekho, in his comfortably appointed hillside cave, and even he doesn't realize just how important she is going to become when she grows older.

Tsar Leo dies realizing how foolish he had been and how his indulgence of his sons had created two arrogant monsters, neither of them truly fit to be the ruler of Mir. He contritely leaves to Nevsky the decision of who will be the next ruler, entrusting to him the keeping of the crown. 

Things continue to get worse and it becomes clear that the young princes will go to any lengths to claim the crown for themselves.  The war they are prepared to wage will create the conditions the dhiavol needs to consume all of Mir.

As the blind storyteller spins his tale he pauses several times for rest and audience reaction. These interludes, it seems, are more than just interruptions in the flow of the narrative. The framework for the minstrel's tale has its own plot, we soon discover, having to do with the relationship between the Chancellor, who narrates it, and the Phantom Queen, who never speaks.

Just what this relationship is, and what it has to do with the story told by the minstrel, is a tale that eventually becomes as interesting as Nevsky’s battle with the powers of darkness. We suspect much, but only in the end do we know for sure.

The Phantom Queen is not your usual sort of slam!bang! fantasy with great muscled barbarians and a quick pace. It is told more in the style of a folk tale, in parts like a series of legends strung together. This suits its theme and characters, but it does take getting used to. If you persevere past the opening chapters, you will get used to the style, and the rewards of the tale are worth that wait.

Ven Begamudré has been the Yukon writer in residence during the fall. His term will conclude on December 27. We can’t wait to see what will be inspired by his stay in the Yukon, but he would be the first to say that we’ll probably have to wait - for a few years at least.

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