Reviewed by Steven H Silver
World in which magic and science co-exist are common in fantasy. In Black Easter, James Blish posits a world in which black magic is practiced by magicians and white magic, when practiced at all, is the domain of the clergy. The novel focuses on Theron Ware, a black magician who is hired by Baines, an American arms manufacturer, to perform several magical commissions. While Baines apparently has a profit motive in all of his requests, Ware admits to not caring about the money. Instead, he comes across as an amoral man who merely wants to see how far he can push his own powers.
Ultimately, Baines and Ware work together to unleash the ultimate evil throughout the world. They do this with the assistance of two of Baines's confederates and a white magician, Father Francis Xavier Domenico Bruno Garelli. Father Domenico's participation is one of the more interesting aspects of the novel, for the white magicians and the black magicians have entered into a compact which treats the battle between Good and Evil as if it were a game with rules which must be followed no matter the outcome. Theron Ware must inform Father Domenico about his plans and Father Domenico must permit Ware to continue to pursue his goals without interference.
The question of good and evil as Blish deals with it is interesting because it spotlights the idea that in a battle, no matter how elementary, there are rules which must be followed and can be exploited by each side. Because of the brevity of the book, Blish is able to address this issue, but little else. His characters are not particularly well-developed, and they have reasonably simple motivations for their actions.
The story almost reads like an allegory for arms control, with the control of devils replacing nuclear weapons. Father Domenico does not want to use the powers at his command while Theron Ware believes that the power can be used in a limited manner. Whether or not it is possible to put the genie back into the bottle once it has been released is the question which Blish's story examines at an even more basic level than his look at good and evil.
Black Easter is a product of the sixties and has a dated feel to it. The issues which the book deals with, while still with us, seem to only be cursorily dealt with in this book. Other works have examined them since 1969, frequently in more detail than Blish does.
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