THE FALLIBLE FIEND
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
According to the old adage, "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions." L. Sprague de Camp turned this saying on its head when he created Zdim, the twelfth-plane demon in The Fallible Fiend. The novel opens with Zdim attempting to get a deferment on service so he won't have to answer a sorcerous summons to Novaria, scene of de Camp's earlier "Reluctant King" series. When Zdim is told he must travel to the Prime Plane, he decides that he will do the tasks he is ordered to do as best as he can. Unfortunately for Doctor Maldivius, who performed the summoning, Zdim is only too helpful and too literal at interpreting his instructions. Resulting in Maldivius's apprentice, Grax, being eaten by Zdim when he enters the room at the wrong time.
Zdim's contract is subsequently sold off to Bagardo the Great, the proprietor of a traveling circus, which begins Zdim's journeys through the lands of Novaria. Novaria is a region which includes eleven independent countries, each of which practices a different method for selecting its ruler. De Camp introduced Xyler, which is ruled by a king for five years, at the end of which time he is beheaded and succeeded by whoever catches his head, in the "Reluctant King" series. In The Fallible Fiend, de Camp shows the syndicate of Ir, which is ruled by the wealthy, and the archonate of Solymbria, whose archon is selected by randomly drawing a name from the hat. Ironically, given the recent inauguration of Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota, the Archon Zdim meets is a former wrestler.
De Camp uses Zdim's travels throughout Novaria as a pretext for unleashing slings and arrows of outrageous satire at governmental practices and systems. However, he is willing to expand further than the obvious. While each system he shows appears ludicrous, he manages to tie them into the republican democracy which is practiced in the United States, thereby highlighting the follies of our own system of government. Furthermore, Zdim comes into contact with the "noble savage" in the guises of the semi-human Zaperazh, the horse nomadic Hruntings, and the cannibalistic Paaluans. Each of these groups represent a different type of fantasy staple and de Camp clearly shows why each is as implausible as the more "corrupt" human institutions of civilizations.
The main point of The Fallible Fiend is satire, a fact which is driven home if the reader begins to look at characterization or plot, neither of which appear in particular abundance. The plot, such as it is, has Zdim traveling to try to find assistance for the citizens of Ir after they ignore warnings of an impending attack by the Paaluans. The characters are drawn with broad strokes, each inspired by one, or possibly two, character traits, whether it is Maldivius's greed, Archon Gavindos' stupidity, or Cham Theorik's drunkeness. Even Zdim, who shows the widest range of activity is mostly driven by his sense of duty and his obedience.
The Fallible Fiend is a humorous novel, although not in a laugh-out-loud way. Instead, as most satire, he causes the reader to recognize the humor of the situation and compare it to their own situation while at the same time beginning to think about how the satire is real and how it is exaggeration.
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