THE FOREST OF PELDAIN
DAW Books, 0-88677-068-8, 1985, cover by Ken W. Kelly
Life was not possible on that watery world except on the Hundred Islands. The Empire of Arelia ruled them all - all except one. Peldain was entirely covered with a forest so impenetrable and so deadly that all attempts to explore it were disastrous. Then a man came out of that jungle - a human - who told the Arelians that at the center of the island a secret kingdom flourished.
There was nothing for it but to organize an expedition. However deadly the alien forest might be, if one man could get out, an army could get in. So Lord Vorduthe landed and began the assault on the great green enemy.
Nobody could have foreseen the horrors with which the forest defended itself. Nobody could have foreseen the price that would be paid by Vorduthe's men. And only Vorduthe himself would learn the incredible secret of the island ... if his mind could stand it!
"Bayley's ingenuity is prodigious." - Vector
"A fairly minor potboiler.." - Andy Robertson, Interzone
review by Marc-André Brie:
"The land of Peldain was completely enclosed by forest, the only approaches it did not block being sheer unclimbable cliffs and the northern ice floes which no ship had ever negotiated. Men had gone into the forest before, but not for a long time and scarcely any had come out alive. For that reason only a few of the forest plants were known by name: mangrab trees, stranglevine, trip-root, fallpits, cagetigers-all vegetable but more deadly than any beast. Because of that forest Peldain had been regarded, throughout recorded history as totally uninhabitable. Nothing like it existed anywhere else in the world." - Barrington J. Bayley, THE FOREST OF PELDAIN
THE FOREST OF PELDAIN is misleadingly marketed by DAW books as a "heroic fantasy" and is graced by an exceptionally ugly cover illustration in which various muscular figures clad in neo-viking garb brandish weapons at the universe. It is in fact science fiction, and moreover Barrington J. Bayley science fiction. There are no elves, dragons or supernatural events and there is a rational (if fantastic) sf explanation for every incident in the story. However it is true that there are no robots or spaceships and that Bayley does relinquish his customary paraphanelia of space opera for this one. The main protagonists are limited to iron age technology, and the grim story is the scene of a great deal of violent mayhem, which may help explain the designation. But it is unlikely that adepts of the ritual dance of sword and sorcery will like this imaginative, ironic and decidedly unheroic tale.
It is in fact a tightly plotted journey of exploration set on one of the large islands of the watery world of Thelessa. The vegetable kingdom of Peldain, protected by a reputedly impenetrable forest, becomes the object of the imperial ambitions of King Crassos, master of the hundred islands, when an ambiguous personage, claiming to have fled Peldain, offers to guide a conquering army through the forest. We follow the fate of the expedition through the viewpoint of its leader, the sympathetic Lord Vorduthe. Bayley's inventiveness never flags, particularly in his descriptions of the desperate march through the murderous sentient forest or of the fantastic kingdom of Peldain. The plot twists through one surprise after another as the expedition unravels in gruesome fashion.
It has become something of a convention, even among his admirers, to disparage Bayley's style of writing; but over the years, the author has developed a controlled and restrained style which is well suited to the type of marvelous stories that he does so well. Any story which reads so effortlessly as this one must be considered to be well written. Indeed this is a superior example of the art of story telling, so that it is surprising to learn that it did not meet with greater success. The tale is strongly focused around the quest and the conflict of the central characters, and the storyline is quite straightforward, one might say unusually so, for a BJB story. After all, Bayley has specialized in labyrinthine plots and van vogtian recomplications before; this is not one of them. But of course it is the decor which is important in this type of yarn, and Bayley never fails us. His world of Thelessa is a wonderful place, strongly envisioned. And the story, if it is a painful one, is also life affirming.
If there are any misgivings to be had, it is in the length of the story, which is too short, and with the second chapter, which breaks the narrative pace. Too much takes place in the last few pages, which are crammed with decisive plot developments. The moral dilemma of Lord Vorduthe, torn between his duty and his humanity, is liquidated in a few paragraphs. As for the second chapter, it is a flash back which serves to explain the origins and the motives of the protagonists. Unfortunately this somewhat artificial plot device breaks the momentum which had been launched by an auspicious (in medias res) beginning. One wishes that Bayley had found a subtler manner to integrate this admitedly necessary background material into the story.
But don't let these minor reservations dissuade you from reading this fine, accessible tale, one of Bayley's most enjoyable.
Barrington Bayley: "I did write it with a different attitude from the way I approached my other novels, as a sort of exercise. In those days I had expected to be able to carry on writing for Don Wollheim's Daw Books, and when I considered what to do next, I thought I'd try my hand at a 'going-through- the-jungle' novel. Alas, it was the last book I ever wrote for Daw."