‘The Charlatan’s Boy’ is Captivating Fantasy

It’s a sad day in Corenwald when no one believes in feechies anymore.
| May 9, 2018 | 11 comments |

It’s a sad day in Corenwald when no one believes in feechies anymore. Specifically, it’s a sad day for Floyd Wendellson and his boy, Grady. The paying crowds pay them no longer. After making a living for years by pretending to be a feechie expert and a genuine feechie boy, they may have to get legitimate jobs.

Ha ha! I’m kidding, of course. What they do next is put up the Ugliest Boy in the World act. As the bad new days run on into years, they make a daring bid to bring back the good old days. Their scheme is unethical and there has to be some sort of law against it, but what do you expect from the charlatan and his boy? They’re neither heroes nor villains, only two showmen trying to turn a pretty penny without any punctilious dedication to the truth.

Jonathan Rogers delivers his story in appropriate style. The book is filled with humor, much of it the sort that is seen by the readers and not the characters. It’s written in first-person, and as you can imagine, a charlatan’s boy will not have the most educated voice. Though to be fair, almost no one in the book does. The editor either had a hard or wonderfully easy time of it, depending on whether she tried to distinguish real grammar errors from style or simply decided it was all one.

The world of The Charlatan’s Boy is constructed with imagination and flair. Unlike most fantasy worlds, Corenwald is more American than European, more modern than medieval. A few things in Corenwald do sound British – the constables, the public houses. But the alligators are decidedly American, and if any other fantasy book mentions watermelons, I haven’t had the privilege of coming across it. American figures come wandering through, re-dressed in Corenwald guise. The traveling snake oil salesman has a lasting place in the American imagination, and the drovers are charmingly familiar. If not the brothers of America’s cowboys, they are at least their cousins. It’s the same trade, but seeing how each generally pursues it, the drovers lack the organization and sophistication of the cowboys. (Perhaps that last phrase is strange to read; it was strange to write.)

Among the rough-and-tumble sorts, constables in blue uniforms and schoolmarms in one-room schoolhouses impose civilization. Yet two things break the mien of the nineteenth-century frontier verging into civilization. For one, the weaponry is bows and arrows, swords and spears. For the other, the good people of Corenwald were seriously told by their forebears that another race lives secretly alongside them, and they are not too far away from believing it.

The Charlatan’s Boy is reminiscent of the old-school episodic novel – Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Penrod, Mark Twain. The main issues of the book are set up at the beginning and steadily – if not urgently – addressed. Yet, lingering over drovers’ fires and doing the phrenology routine, even parts that advance the plot often feel anecdotal. The anecdotes were entertaining, well-told, and even charming. But as they followed one on another, I began wondering when the next shoe would finally fall on somebody.

I would, however, do a disservice to this book if I made it sound as if it went nowhere. It did go somewhere, and the climax and conclusion were marvelous. The humor and the lightheartedness of the story are a joy, and sometimes – suddenly but naturally – sadness pierces through, straight to the heart. The Charlatan’s Boy, with its humor and its heart and its style, is captivating and even, in an unemphatic sort of way, brilliant fantasy.

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11 Comments on "‘The Charlatan’s Boy’ is Captivating Fantasy"

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notleia
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Somewhat off-topic: That’s a thing I’ve noticed with a lot of fantasy, a weird kind of anachronism, like that place had somehow gotten to the Industrial Revolution without inventing firearms.

Yeah, it’s mostly about the aesthetics of swords and bows without the grossness of a society that prolly hasn’t developed public sewers. I would be interested to learn about the plausibility of an industrial revolution without gunpowder.

China could have done it. They had the tech to do it, but I don’t think the Plague ever dropped the population enough to give them the motivation to move away from serf/peasant labor.

Travis Perry
Editor

I once invented a story world (which I have not yet written a story in), in which an world with industrialization never developed gunpowder because in its alternate universe, the laws of nature were slightly different from ours, so that it had a much higher level of static electricity and ball lightning.

Nothing in this world could be made of things that were easily inflammable, which would mean no gunpowder and no highly flammable chemicals. Coal and kerosene would be manageable (but not coal dust or kerosene fumes), but gasoline and gunpowder would be so impractical as to never be used. It would also create an entirely different culture around many different different things. E.g. hay and grain would have to be stored entirely differently; no thatched roofs; since kindling would burn itself unless stored in an airtight box, household fires would remain continually lit as a cultural practice; houses of stone and brick would be universally preferred over wood, etc.

So it is possible to create a story reason for an Industrial Revolution without gunpowder. Though I have no idea if this story did so (probably not).

As for the people who were the closest to an Industrial Revolution without gunpowder historically speaking, that would be the Roman Empire, who had water-powered machines that milled grain and produced bread on a truly industrial scale, whose empire included Hero of Alexandria, who invented a steam-powered jet engine which could have turned wagon wheels if the Romans had felt an urgent need to create such a thing (but they didn’t).

The Chinese invented gunpowder and were thus further away from an Industrial Revolution without gunpowder than literally every other civilization in the world. FYI.

notleia
Guest

I’d have to read up on Wiki some more, but IIRC the Chinese didn’t weaponize gunpowder at the same rate that Westerners did. Then again, Europe had wars about every fifteen seconds after the Pax Romana, so it’s not like they had much of a chance. A long-lasting peace could conceivably turn gunpowder into a gun-less direction. Maybe not cannon-less, but easily portable boomstick-less.

The Romans would probably have more of an uphill climb because their economy was so dependent on slave labor. Serfs and peasants had a bit of legal protection (at least in Europe, not so sure about China, but slavery seems to be pretty rare thru-out the history there) about not being removed from their native land (heck, they more likely couldn’t LEAVE their native land), so the elite couldn’t forcibly resettle populations in order to relieve workforce shortages that could be caused by a plague. They would have had to bribe them with, at the very least, better living conditions, which is more of a cost than the up-front of buying a bunch of people and feeding, housing, and clothing them on the cheap.

Heck, it’s the same reason why manufacturers move their sweatshops into 3rd-world countries rather than investing in a lot of money to advance their automation.

notleia
Guest

Also I almost posted a giant essay poking at any theories on grain or hay storage because I actually have quite a bit of knowledge on that topic.

My theory is that grass-type crops like grains probably wouldn’t have been developed in the first place, because that NEEDS to be dry for storage.

Travis Perry
Editor

You’d have to store them in containers with limited air–and you could not leave them to dry before putting them in such containers without keeping a constant watch. It’s doable, but hay might not be worth the trouble. I think grain would be worth it–wine was considered worth it (wine was kept in basically airtight containers, in sealed clay jars and wine skins). Grains were originally stored in earthenware anyway.

But you’d never see the development of a grain elevator in the world I imagined.

notleia
Guest

Even if everything went to beer, grain production would still be drastically reduced because bread/rice would no longer have been staple foods.

To give you an idea, modern standards for wheat storage are no more than 14% moisture content, with about 10% being preferred. (I used to work for a grain elevator.)

But I think agriculture could have started from tuber-type crops because you can still make alcohol from it. Pass the vodka, comrade.

Travis Perry
Editor

Please note that I stated control of burning would gravitate towards control of air rather than leaving things wet. This is technology ancient people had–they controlled contact of air by use of glazed ceramic containers for wine and other products. They could have done the same by storing tightly packed grain in ceramic and sealing them. Not too much of a stretch from what they already did. I also think making bread is more important than making beer, though I see what you mean. Again, you can store grain without using grain elevators. Ancient people already did this. So, yeah, I don’t agree with your conclusions, товарищ, but that’s ok, We are, after all, discussing a fictional world for which more than one interpretation is possible…

notleia
Guest

(((((((But it has to dry in the field before you can put it in the pottery.)))))

Travis Perry
Editor

I suggested people would have to keep a careful watch on it while drying. Try to keep up! 😉

Travis Perry
Editor

The Chinese weaponized gunpowder pretty much immediately, though battle rockets, bombs, and land mines which were less effective than cannons. But they had gunpowder long before Westerners did. Again, looking at them as the most likely to industrialize without gunpowder only works if you actually meant without canons. Which still was not true, because the Chinese eventually had canons. But maybe they would not have developed handguns on their own–so they perhaps could have industrialized with canons, rockets, bombs, and swords. That’s not what you said, but maybe that’s what you meant. If so, OK.

As for the Romans, you are both right and wrong. The Romans were already mass-producing bread in factories. They were the first in the world to have factories, though only for a few specific purposes, mostly bread making and some sawmills (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbegal_aqueduct_and_mill). The Romans also conquered the Hellenistic Greeks and in theory could have exploited their advanced knowledge, including their construction of the world’s oldest (analog) computer, the Antikythera mechanism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antikythera_mechanism), and the mechanical discoveries of Hero of Alexandria (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero_of_Alexandria). They were actually right on the cusp of an Industrial Revolution, some 800 years before China came up with gunpowder.

While some experts say what Rome was really lacking was good metallurgy, I disagree. They could have figured out the metals if they really had wanted to. But they didn’t want or need to. Basically because they had slaves to rely on, which meant their industrial developments stunted instead of grew. Which is the part you got right.

But China, for all it’s long-term development of advanced inventions (like crossbows, gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press), was significantly further from mass production of anything than the Romans were. And even though China did not have slaves, they did not hesitate to rely on massive employment of serf labor (as in their construction of the Great Wall).

Brie Donning
Guest

I wonder if the drovers are anything like Australian drovers? My impression is that we were more laid back over here.

This does sound like an interesting story.