- Philippa Ballantine: Gloria Platt, mother of the deceased
- P.G. Holyfield: Arames Kragen, detective; Arrin Perti, student; et al.
- Chris Lester: [Not in this production]
- Tee Morris: Father Jorrus, undead-hunter
- Web site: http://www.pgholyfield.com/maah/
It’s all in the game
All four of the works discussed in this series are impressive not only because of their imagination but also because of the amount of thought that clearly has gone into each of them. Chasing the Bard and MOREVI, as “hidden chapters” of the history of England, obviously require considerable research into that history to ensure consistency with its events and cultures. What can one say, however, about stories that depart from our world’s history into new territory — into worlds that are more built than borrowed? How does a writer craft his or her world with enough care that we visitors will trust it, and the story that takes place there, not to crumble beneath our feet?
P.G. Holyfield shows us one solution with his novel Murder at Avedon Hill: trace out as many decision/implication trails as you can, thereby eliminating those world-lines that don’t work; then, when you have a sheaf of workable histories available, pick the one you like best.
An awful lot of work to put yourself through just for one story, you say? Not if you’re creating a role-playing game — which was Holyfield’s original project, a game that was to take place in the Land of Caern. Perhaps at some point the game will see the light of day. Now, though, we have the excellent — and, dare we say, well thought-through — Murder at Avedon Hill.
In Which J.R.R. Tolkien Meets Agatha Christie, and We Learn that a Scholar is a Very Good Thing to Be
The first of those two opinions does not originate with me but with Scott Roche, author of the thriller series Archangel — who sums up the mood of Murder at Avedon Hill quite deftly. Like Tolkien’s world, the Land of Caern1 includes human and nonhuman intelligences, creatures of good and of evil, workers with tools and workers with magic, all at a pre–power-tools level of technology. In this world one can and does find battles between man and man or man and monster, with the cry of war and clash of steel. One also finds, though, the kind of conflict with which Agatha Christie excelled: a murder in a quiet-on-the-surface village. Such a village is Avedon Hill.
Arames Kragen is a monk of many parts. As an Aarronic Advisor, he formerly counseled a prince in matters diplomatic and military, his dedication ultimately not to his ruler but to the land itself. While not talented in the use of magic, Arames himself has a particular sensitivity to the “river of magic” that runs through the Land of Caern, a trait that occasionally gives him insight into the unseen activities of those who do wield magical power (and, incidentally, ties in ideally with his Aarronic commitment to the land). His own personal interest, however, is in the study of theology and prophecy; it is to follow this pursuit that, while remaining a member of the monastic Aarronic Order, he has taken early retirement as an Advisor. Researcher, diplomat, strategist, sensitive — all ideal characteristics for a detective.2
Researchers, alas, often find their studies diverted into unexpected paths. Arames and his student, Arrin (the son of the ruler he had advised), were traveling to a conference on the prophecies of Iberian. The route to the conference site includes the Olviaran Pass, a highway tunnel through otherwise near-impassable mountains — and the entrance to the Pass is controlled by Avedon Hill and its ruling family. But right now Lord Avedon isn’t letting anyone through. His Housemistress, Gretta Platt, has been murdered, and while her murder remains unsolved no one is going anywhere. Including Arames and Arrin.
Which, eventually, is all right with Arames. Scholarly conferences … meh, scholarly conferences tend to become routine. The Avedon Hill matter, by contrast, is immediate and important. He signs on as investigator.
As it happens, it’s a good thing that the investigator is also a theologian. For there’s one more facet of the Land of Caern that will come into play in the course of the story: Not only are the gods — the Children of Az (“Ah-zh”) — quite real, they tend to enter the world as mortals from time to time in order to … well, apparently to make things more, um, interesting. The incarnation process must follow certain rules, among which are than an incarnation of a Child won’t know that this is what he or she is until a moment of epiphany. But his or her presence is genuine — and Holyfield has broadly hinted that it will play a significant part in the outcome of the story.
Sit back with a tankard of ale and enjoy
We invoke Agatha Christie here to point out that, like her “village murder mysteries,” Murder at Avedon Hill proceeds in a cerebral manner. The puzzle is convoluted, the relationships between the players challenge us to discover them, the town itself has an agenda that affects Caern itself, and I have no doubt that the outcome will be rewarding. Those who have heard P.G. Holyfield’s short story “Death, Taxes, and Scott Sigler” know that he works with ideas, making us look at the familiar in new ways. You won’t find Sigler’s “lots and lots of violence” here — well, okay, some of the participants do meet unpleasant ends, and Holyfield isn’t squeamish about a wee spilling of blood; after all, when one’s world includes vampires and moon-beasts, there’s a bit of jeopardy to life and limb involved. But as in all the best detective books, the mystery’s the thing, and Holyfield’s laid-back voice lets it unfold smoothly. The unearthly creatures add spice.
Adding more spice is the excellent voice cast. Holyfield initially considered doing Murder at Avedon Hill as a “straight read,” and the skilled work he does in differentiating between the five characters he himself handles suggests that this approach would have succeeded. But he decided to incorporate guest voices, as Tee Morris did before him, and in the process learned the lessons Morris did also: (a) it’s a heckuvalotta work, and (b) it’s fun. Many who have their own podcasts contributed to this project also — I’ve especially enjoyed Rick Stringer’s (Variant Frequencies) reading of various Caerim religious/literary texts at the beginning of each chapter,3 Podcasting’s Rich Sigfrit’s (Requiem of the Outcast) funny yet sympathetic portrayal of the half-orc blacksmith Herrjarr (my word, how does that man have any voice left?), and Tee Morris’s vibrant turn as the undead-hunter Father Jorrus (imagine what King Lear might have sounded like in his prime). Together the participants create a town that’s colorful, idiosyncratic, and altogether an intriguing place to be.
So sit back in your booth at Talik Bore’s inn, let Leilah top off your ale, and fire up the little gray cells. There’s been a murder at Avedon Hill, and people are talking.
- Even after this many episodes, a label for MaAH fans has yet to appear, comparable to Scott Sigler’s “Junkies,” J.C. Hutchins’s “Beta Clones,” and Tee Morris’s “Snitches.” That my suggestion of “Caern Bairns” has so far been ignored, I can only attribute to blatant prejudice on the part of Mr. P.G. “Damn You” Holyfield. [↩]
- If any of this makes you think of Umberto Eco’s Brother William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose, himself an obvious homage to Sherlock Holmes, well, Holyfield hasn’t objected to the suggestion (although he would sooner invoke Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael). If you further wish to recast Sean Connery as Arames, go right ahead. I don’t mind. [↩]
- These epigrams reveal Holyfield to be a student of Frank Herbert, who so expertly used the technique to add depth to his Dune universe. Indeed, Holyfield has admitted to being a Herbert enthusiast. [↩]
First of all, thanks so much for doing this, Michael. To be in the same series of articles as Mr. Morris and Ms. Ballantine is incredible… and my joy won’t be lessened in the least when my Nemesis gets his well-deserved due… damn him. 😉
I’d say you give me way too much credit but my wife told me I have to stop doing that. So again, thanks…
Notes 🙂 – I’ve considered ‘Children of Az’ as a name for fans of MaAH, but I didn’t want to make this sound like a YA novel. And Sean Connery circa 1986 is great casting in my book.
As in so many areas, so here: a wife’s wisdom should be taken quite seriously.
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