Mistress of Mistresses: book one of the Zimziamvia trilogy by E. R. Eddison
There are two things wrong with the subtitle of this volume. 1) while Eddison himself did refer to the books as a trilogy, he was sure that there would be more books in the series. It was really more open-ended. 2) The series actually goes backwards in time as it goes on, so while this is the first book in the series, every book from here on is a prequel so you could argue that this is actually book three of the series and book one is yet to come. But that would be dumb and you shouldn’t do that. I’ll delete this entire paragraph before I post. You’ll never know it was here! Bwa-hahahahahaha!
The book begins with Edward Lessingham dead. Of old age. His good friend arranges for his funeral, which will involve the cremation of both his corpse and the only remaining painting of his late wife (painting was done by Lessingham; all other paintings of Mary Lessingham were burned at the time of her death, by Edward (that is, the paintings were burned by Edward, not Mary was killed by Edward. It just occurred to me that that sentence was a bit . . . obscure). While he tells us about all this, he talks to a young Spanish woman who had been staying with them, Dona Aspasia.
The action then changes to Zimziavia itself, where Edward Lessingham is very much alive (well, Lessingham is alive; whether his first name is Edward I could not tell from my reading. It’s possible that this Lessingham’s first name is Lessingham). This makes a certain amount of sense, as we know from the first book that Zimziavia is a land of the blessed dead (a definition of which is strangely lacking, other than that they “did justly and were not dastards nor oppressors”, which we will soon have cause to question).
Zimziavia seems an awful lot like Earth, even having access to quotations from Spinoza, Sappho, Homer, Shakespeare, and Webster (Duchess of Malfi gets quoted). The action is mainly set in “the three kingdoms”, Fingiswold, Rerek and Meszria, joined together not long ago by King Mezentius, who is now dead for some years. His son, Styllis, was king after him, but now Styllis is dead, possibly poisoned, leaving young Queen Antiope to take the throne. As she is under the age of majority, there must be a regent, and Styllis has appointed Horius Parry, Vicar of Rerek*, rather than his own half-brother (and therefor also the Queen’s half-brother) Barganax, Duke of Zayana. To further complicate things, it is widely believed that Parry was the one who poisoned Styllis in the first place.
Lessingham serves Parry, who is his “cousin-german”**, bringing a successful mercenary company of 800 horse (and probably the same number of riders) which is good because the book spends most of its time alternating between war and peace negotiations (never quite making it to actual peace) between the Vicar and Barganax, who feels that he should be the rightful regent. Both men are prone to stupidly violent fits when thwarted; Barganax destroys his paintings when they don’t go right and Parry beats, kills, arrests and/or throws to his dogs anyone who makes him angry. Why anyone respects either of these men is a mystery to me. Neither very much respects the Queen they are supposed to be serving; which should (but doesn’t) make things tougher for Lessingham when he meets her and realises that she is the reincarnation of his beloved Mary (up until that point he hasn’t seemed to realise that he has lived before, on Earth, nor of course does she, but before the end of the book they have a conversation in full Edward/Mary mode, including the use of those names). Why Lessingham serves the Vicar is something everybody wonders; no one seems to ask why anyone serves the Duke, he being no better a person. Though at least Barganax doesn’t fall into the Parry’s mode of betraying everyone who crosses his path. Lessingham stands by him, though, with a smile on his lips, until the Vicar goes one betrayal too far.
Barganax has one saving grace, his love for Fiorinda, sister to his father’s Chancellor, a former lady in waiting to his mother, the Duchess of Memison, and twice-widowed (more about her previous marriages in the next two books). Sadly, I don’t like Fiorinda much more than I like the Duke, nor her ladies in waiting, nor Doctor Vandermast, the ancient philosopher who seems to have taught everyone but otherwise just stands around spouting empty aphorisms.
The book is loaded with description and with action (something for everyone). One thing which kind of weirded me out: Eddison has a kind of facial hair fetish or something. Every male character that he wants us to like has a lavish beard and usually “bristling mustachios”. Only one character, a king from a neighbouring kingdom, is beardless (described as “shaved smooth as a woman’s [face]”; all I could think of when I read that line was, “Yeah, Eddison, like those smooth-shaven girly men in the Roman legions”) and that seems to be used as a way to point out his villainy (as though his actions didn’t do the job–and that’s the annoying part, because his actions do the job just fine).
Anyway, there’s lots of battles and politicing, though it’s hard to figure out what’s going on vis-a-vis Lessingham and Mary: why they’re in Zimziavia, I mean. And if only the good get in there, where did the Vicar and our smooth-faced villain come from? The back of the book suggests that Lessingham has made a deal with Aphrodite (who is Fiorinda) but if that’s the case why isn’t any of this in the story? It is hinted at at the very end of the book, but never really explained. If it weren’t for the back matter, I’d be baffled (not enough to not enjoy the story, but still . . .).
Overall, I’d call the book often troubling, but still interesting and recommended.
*I was somewhat puzzled by the title Vicar, as there is nothing ecclesiatical about Horius Parry. However, the term has a secular meaning as well; basically lieutenant. Which, of course, had me wondering why Eddison chose that exact term rather than another and the book never does explain.
** first cousin. Seriously, this is a real thing.
A Fish Dinner In Memison: book two of the Zimziavia trilogy by E. R. Eddison
Memison is the home of the Duchess of Memison, mother to Barganax and lover of King Mezentius, who you might remember was dead in the last book. This book is set some years before, and Mezentius is very much alive. During the course of the story, he rides off to confront the Vicar of Rerek, still the same Horius Parry as in the first book, still plotting to betray anyone he can, in this case first the King and then, when caught, his co-conspirators. Why the King does not have him killed for treason is a mystery to his Chancellor, and also to the reader (other than that the King likes him, for reasons that also remain a mystery, but does not respect him).
At the same time, Barganax first meets Fiorinda, who at the time is on her second marriage (her first husband was stabbed to death in the market-place a few years back. The thugs who did the job have disappeared; the question is, who ordered it? Fiorinda or her brother? And why? We will eventually learn the answer to one of these questions. I think that Eddison intends for us to see Barganax and Fiorinda as great lovers but frankly I mostly felt sorry for her husband, who only wants her to love him and who, because he objects to another man fucking his wife, winds up being killed by wild beasts.
Simultaneously, on Earth, over a big chunk of the early twentieth century, Edward Lessingham meets, woos, marries, and loses Mary. Some parts of this plotline work very well, and we finally meet Mary qua Mary, and Lessingham of Earth gets to be a real character rather than someone we just hear briefly about. Other parts are kind of less effective: in wooing Mary Lessingham pays little attention to her objections (she doesn’t really mean them, but he can’t know that), and in the wake of WWI Lessingham argues against the peace treaty and warns that before long they will be back at it with Germany again (which would get him points for prescience except that Lessingham’s words, though spoken in 1921, were written in 1941. Also, his solution would be to metaphorically stand on their necks and dictate peace, as though the problem were that the Treaty of Versailles wasn’t vindictive enough.
Finally, the Duchess holds the titular dinner, a small private affair to which she invites the King, of course, Barganax and Fiorinda, the Vicar (exactly why he is there remains a mystery) and a few others of no real importance, and at which Fiorinda dares the King to do something stupid, though in fairness this is because he asks a stupid question first.
This is the weakest of the three main books, and probably my least favourite, though you have to read it if you’re reading the rest because of the Edward/Mary stuff.
The Mezentian Gate by E. R. Eddison
This was the only one to get even a partial write-up last time. It was also the one that Eddison never got to finish. He wrote a bunch of text for the beginning, and a bunch more for the ending, some in-between, and a bunch of notes for the rest. It still provides a complete narrative, and would possibly have been the best book in the series, after The Worm Ouroborous.
The idea behind this book was that Eddison found himself wondering how a good King like Mezentius left things in such a mess behind him. The obvious answer, to anyone who read the last book, was that Mezentius, rather than being a good king, was a colossal idiot. Eddison didn’t see that, so we get a book that begins before good king M’s birth and ends with his death. We also find out why Fiorinda’s first husband died, but not who ordered the hit. We also finally meet Mezentius’ wife, who is one of the most interesting characters in the series (though her success at politics and limited interest in domestic affairs leads Eddison to refer to her as unwomanly), but not Styllis, the Prince who would one day be king. In fact, he’s the one character who, as far as I remember, appears in person nowhere in the series. Which, I think, explains a lot about the mess Mezentius left behind him.
The other best character is Emmius Parry, uncle to the Vicar and the master manipulator Horius wishes he could be. Emmius dominates the early pages of the book in a way that Mezentius just isn’t capable of doing, and I would have loved a whole book about him.
Lacking that, I would have preferred for this book to be completed. There are too many interesting characters in it, even if they aren’t the ones Eddison thought he was writing about.
Overall, the series is interesting and well worth reading, but you should keep in mind the caveats I made at the start of Worm. Mildly recommended.