The late Avram Davidson, winner of Hugo, Edgar, and World Fantasy Awards, may be one of genre‘s most influential authors, but he has never received quite the recognition granted many other SF/fantasy pioneers. For this year’s SF summer beach reading, I recommend Masters of the Maze. In scarcely more than 150 pages, Davidson boggles your brain with this bizarre blend of SF, fantasy, time-travel, conspiracy theory, history, and old-style adventure.
Title: Masters of the Maze
Author: Avram Davidson.
Wildside Press Paperback Edition.
Nathaniel Gordon, a hack writer, specializes in hilariously bad “true-life” adventures for 1960s newstand trash. He writes them, swears to their authenticity, and sells them, always under a pseudonym. He has sold so many that he’s started reusing pseudonyms, “so that poor Pierce Tarravel, to name but one, had lost wives to fates worse than death on three different continents”(12). Gordon finds his dubious life interrupted by Joseph Bellamy, wealthy member of the quasi-masonic Esquires of the Sword, an antiente order which in fact fronts a very real and very dangerous secret; they guard an entrance to the Maze, a tangle of flaws in spacetime which allow one access to an assortment of worlds and eras.
The various guardians in different times and places face a few problems. The extremist Teutonic Knights Lancers Elu of Livonia have long coveted the entrance guarded by the Esquires, and members John Horn and Major Nick Flint intend to claim it, as a means to their own political ends. Elsewhere, the Chulpex, a sentient race of insectoids, see the Maze as a means to find new breeding grounds to infest. That their target worlds are already inhabited represents a minor obstacle to overcome. Meanwhile, Bellamy requires a successor, and has selected Nate Gordon for the job. Gordon, of course, has not a clue regarding matters extra-terrestrial and other-dimensional, but it falls to him to enter the Maze and, possibly, save the world.
The fact that Davidson writes like this:
Elias Ashmole thought that he had discovered it. Oxford lawyer, courtier, soldier, astrologer, alchemist, historian, mystic, pragmatist, devotee of the new learning as well as the old; first gentleman freemason, founder of the first “public museum of curiousities” in England: Elias Ashmole, floreat 1617-1692.
The Maze was, is, and will be. When the magnablock exploded into infinity, the Maze was formed. “There was light”– and the light shone upon the Maze…. It traverses space, it transects time. Ancient of years, the worlds form around it…
The nearest and quickest way is not ever the best. There is a door by which one can enter the treasure house of Croesus– but although it is only a hundred steps from door to treasure, fifty of these steps pass through the house of Daniel Dickensheet in Mincemeat Lane in the year of the Plague and on the door of that house is painted a cross, and the words, Lord Have Mercy on Us.
The Red Fish People are interesting, in an exotic fantasy kind of way, but Davidson devotes too much time to them, relative to the more-interesting Chulpex.
Originality: 5/6. Davidson deserves credit for demonstrating more imagination in fewer than 200 pages than many SF/fantasy writers manage in entire, overblown series. We first learn of the customs of the Red Fish People, for example, when the very alien Chulpex teach other Chulpex about them. Historical figures and esoteric detail abound, as Gordon searches for the legendary Masters of the Maze, and a solution to the threats posed by the maze of conspiracy in which he has become entangled.
Of course, he also uses a number of ideas that were well-established in SF by the 1960s.
Story: 5/6 Ray Bradbury has compared the experience of reading this novel to entering thick fog and having to orient yourself. You just have to trust that the plot will eventually make sense.
Characterization: 5/6 A Chulpex “Sire” attempts what we humans call a “joke” and bombs in the specific way that a dominant member of sentient patriarchal hive-race most likely would. The human villains, on the other hand, tend to be stereotypical.
Emotional Response: 5/6
Editing: 5/6. I know that some readers would prefer fewer bizarre asides, but they form an important part of Davidson’s style and contribute to the novel’s overall effect.
Overall Score: 6/6 Forty years after it first appeared, Masters of the Maze still makes that stumbling through its labyrinth worthwhile.
In total, Masters of the Maze receives 36 out of 42