Review of After the Campfires (1998)

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Per Jorner (writer).

Read in 2021.

Four orphans in the springtime of youth are pulled into an epic fantasy plot concerning a healing crystal stolen from the red priests of Tatîr. The four have little opportunity to understand how they are being used. The experience changes them. Tim, one of the four, misses out on a crucial period of two months when that change becomes profound. He wants only to abandon the grand adventure and go back to the campfires they used to light.

I used to know Per Jorner casually, through a couple of mailing lists for SFF writing (SKRIVA/Korkek). He was in print back then, and an active contributor to the community. I picked up this book much later, around the time that I disconnected from that community. I did not come around to reading the book until 2021. That seems appropriate, given the subject. It’s a meditation on growing up.

I was faster on the ball reading other Swedish fantasy from the same era. In retrospect, Jorner stands out by his boldness. In After the Campfires, he shows an active interest in flouting convention, partly for an intelligent deconstruction of the tropes of epic fantasy. This deconstruction is chiefly a question of characterization and attitude, rather than setting, plot or presentation.

The basic elements are familiar from The Lord of the Rings (1954) and other giants of the genre. Through no fault of their own, effectively innocent and unassuming people become involved with morally charged, multimillennial, magical power struggles in a secondary world. They are intimidated but they persist because, whether by fate or by chance (not effort), they are suited to a quest. Tolkien’s Frodo is somewhat able to resist the One Ring, while Jorner’s Tim is named “master of the crystal” for his similar apparent immunity to the ill effects of the artifact he carries. After a great struggle the adventurers grow and emerge victorious, as heroes. Some details in the comparison are striking: Jorner’s Faun resembles Tolkien’s controversial Tom Bombadil; Jorner’s Tim finds and keeps a powerful magical ring that can corrupt its user, though all it does is to read the mind of someone nearby; and in naming the ancient archvillain, Jorner uses the same phonological tricks as Tolkien, albeit with a multivalent twist (Morkaid, not Morgoth). So far, not very bold.

The character gallery is less Tolkien-esque and more like a typical fantasy TRPG. There are lots of people named after birds at the school of magic, as in A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). There are also multiple dungeon sequences, as in The Tombs of Atuan (1971) and too many RPGs. The closest thing to Aragorn is not the President’s Champion, a semi-anonymous leather-clad badass, but Toby, an anthropomorphic or teratomorphic cat who reminds me of the titular Guin from Guin Saga (1979). The overt magical struggle is largely confined to chapter 7, but surprisingly heavy with clichés. Magical combat, a rare thing, is bright and colourful, while a non-magical combatant is seen—on page 452 of the original Norstedts edition—pulling a long sword from a scabbard on his back, more easily than he would in real life.

There is apparently only one language of note in this fantasy world; another cliché. It might be English, given that conformance with the bylaws of English-language genre fantasy extends as far as using the English term “lord” in a Swedish text, for what in Swedish would normally be called a herre. This is perhaps a mistake. There are several editing glitches in the first edition, most conspicuously the absence of a leading space before any sentence beginning with a capital letter V, but Jorner’s writing itself also needed another couple of passes. Here are some of the worst examples:

Det slog Tim att bevakningen inte tycktes vara särskild hård. (p. 266)

It struck Tim that it seemed as though the place was not especially heavily guarded.

That could have been said better, and here’s the climax of the whole book:

Krigare från båda sidor rusade fram och möttes på halva vägen med ett oväsen av svärd som möttes. (p. 486)

Warriors from both sides rushed forth and met halfway along with the noise of swords meeting.

This prose makes for slow reading, but most passages flow better. I sense they were probably written later, or else appropriately revised. The opening is misleading; Sammy, Benyo, Zetrak and Ghoron—all rather bland genre-fantasy names—all turn out to be marginal. For a debut novel by a student of physics, these annoyances are all tolerable.

It’s not primarily a comic fantasy or a work of metafiction, but there are plenty of idiosyncratic jokes—Jorner likes gnus—and a few allusions to modern pop culture, like a parody of The Seventh Seal (1957) and an incompetent poet. Rather than comedy, the novel’s bold element of deconstruction concerns reflexivity in other forms. The villains state their case at length, some characters are either good or evil but most of them are clearly mixed, and even the most central, high-level plot is morally ambiguous. Toby, it turns out, is literally an ancient freedom fighter, an anarchist who convinces the Gandalf-like Thymrik and the president of the world’s dominant polity to voluntarily concede much of what the apparent villains fought for, in Toby’s offer to help “defeat” those same villains. This concession involves a peaceful transfer of power from magical to more mundane authorities as well as the end to a monopoly on the teaching of mages. Rather than merely killing a Sauron or a Lord Foul, what Toby and his friends achieve is more akin to the Protestant Reformation, which is more intelligent, though its consequences are sadly unexplored in an otherwise satisfying denouement.

The deconstruction of the genre as it pertains to the plot is secondary, and done in such a way that it did not have to happen at the expense of believability, which is very nice, and even quite impressive. The novel’s modern sensibilities also do not extend to any form of steampunk, though the economy is advanced enough—after a long period of peace and competent conservative government—to permit several boring TRPG-style taverns. However, Toby is not the only anthropomorphic animal, I am sorry to say. The other cases are more easily explainable as illusions and do not wreck the unobtrusive worldbuilding.

The most central element of deconstruction, more important than the plot, is Jorner’s voice, which is most clearly expressed in Tim as a character. He is stubborn, skeptical and sardonic to the point of being almost immune to coercion, but he is not a rogue or cad. He is curious, bookish and a storyteller, but not a bard or mage. He is not cruel, but he is impractical, insecure and tragically incapable of recognizing the independence of his love interest (Tenet), so they end up screaming at eachother and never forming a relationship. Those dramatic scenes don’t mesh well with the dominant, less emotional and more reflexive tone elsewhere, and neither do the more horrific scenes, but Tim’s possessiveness makes for a more believable hamartia than Covenant’s anti-heroic rape of Lena in Lord Foul’s Bane (1977). Tim does end up killing at least one person, but that is an appropriately momentous decision. His Hamlet-like indecisiveness and passivity are not so appealing, but they complete the picture of an up-to-the-minute 1998 epic-fantasy hero. Not quite an author self-insert, and certainly not a submyth or stereotype, but something more novel.

Speaking of more novel, the first 100 pages are a slog, but once Jorner finds his direction, it’s a pleasant read. The unusual voice is ultimately a success, balancing humour, a relatable realism and the rewards of the genre, without ever getting too edgy or tripping over genre standbys. With a stricter editor and just a little more character to the world itself, I am sure this novel would have been very good.

References here: Svart eld (2000), Svavelvinter (2004).

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