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Literature / A Wizard in Rhyme

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A Wizard in Rhyme is a fantasy series by Christopher Stasheff, combining Medieval European Fantasy with deconstruction, historical accuracy and a lot of troping.

Our protagonist is Matthew Mantrell, Ordinary Graduate Student, English major and general intellectual, working on his doctorate during The Present Day (presumably The '80s, as that's when the first book was published). During his researches he comes across a piece of parchment covered in a language unknown to man. It turns out to be a Summon Everyman Hero spell that whisks him to "Merovence," the France of an Alternate History Europe still in The High Middle Ages. Now Trapped in Another World, he makes a number of discoveries.

  • Functional Magic exists, is controlled by rhymed verse, and co-exists with normal physics. Matthew, having a good six hundred years' extra knowledge to draw upon in both fields, is enormously powerful by the standards of the day.
  • God and Satan exist, bringing with them Black-and-White Morality and the necessity of picking a side. Both forces offer power—evil in the form of Deals with Devils, good in the form of saints—and one must be sure to stay on the good side of your moral compass in order to avoid defeat both in the afterlife and here.
  • Saint Moncaire, patron of Merovence, brought Matthew here to restore the Balance of Good and Evil. All the other nations of Europe—Ibile, Allustria, Latruria, etc—have fallen under the reign of evil men, and a usurper, Astaulf, now threatens the throne of Merovence, aided by his Evil Chancellor Malingo. Matthew's job is to find Princess Alisande and help her reclaim her throne, thus preventing all of Europe from falling to the clutches of evil.

The series is relatively obscure. Books are a Cliché Storm: Matthew is set a task involving setting to rights another European country. He collects a Rag Tag Bunch Of Misfits as he travels, often supplementing them with Public Domain Characters created through Summon Magic; most of them fade back into obscurity, though two from the first book, the Black Knight, Sir Guy de Toutarien, and the dragon Stegoman, make repeat appearances. Matthew makes more study into the fabric of magic and Stasheff gets to soapbox about morality and virtue, whether in a Christian context or no.

It is decidedly, deliberately, unabashedly Troperiffic. The Theory of Narrative Causality is in full force, and characters are Genre Savvy enough to actively invoke tropes if they stand to benefit from them (in the first book alone Princess Alisande calls upon "Underdogs Never Lose" and "The Good Guys Always Win"). The result is a Post Modern series in the trappings of an Historical Fantasy (complete with Ye Olde Butchered English, even though technically they are speaking French), a flood of classic poetry, and a series of Lampshade Hangings which can only be described as loving..

  1. Her Majesty's Wizard (1986)
  2. The Oathbound Wizard (1993)
  3. The Witch Doctor (1994)
  4. The Secular Wizard (1995)
  5. My Son, the Wizard (1997)
  6. The Haunted Wizard (1999)
  7. The Crusading Wizard (2000)
  8. The Feline Wizard (2000)

Please add all new character tropes to the Character Sheet.

Tropes displayed in this series include:

  • Alternate History: The timeline split when Romulus and Remus fought. In this version Remus won and Reme became famous for its peacemaking and negotiation prowess. Also, magic exists.
  • The Atoner: Father Brunel became a priest to find forgiveness for his curse and resist temptation (he is cursed to transform into a werewolf if he starts feeling lust).
  • Author Appeal: The last few books ditch the ongoing story and are mostly an excuse to play with the Prestor John legend.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Because magic in this setting is controlled by Exact Words, Matt has to be very careful with his phrasing. Otherwise, a spell to conjure fire can summon a firebreather, and a Dracogriff-sized saddle can come out big enough for the Dracogriff to ride.
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Matt and Alisande. They bicker and argue almost like an old married couple, call each other out on moments of weakness, and even after all is said and done in the first novel, in a case of Cannot Spit It Out, Matt still has trouble admitting his feelings for her.
  • Bare-Fisted Monk: Saul Bremener is a trained martial artist and avowed pacifist, relying on his fists to defend himself.
  • Butt-Dialing Mordor: In the first book, "Her Majesty's Wizard", Matthew is casting a spell to reanimate a giant, which succeeds too well. He not only awakens the intended giant, but his Evil Counterpart who had tricked Matthew into casting the spell in the first place.
  • Black Knight: A non-villainous example in Sir Guy. He paints his armor black to hide the fact that he's lordless. Well, as lordless as the heir apparent to the series' analogue to the Holy Roman Empire can get away with.
  • A Day in the Limelight: After Matthew disappears from our world, his friend Saul Bremener tries to figure out where he went. He travels to Merovence just in time to be the star of the third book, and becomes the series' only first-person narrator.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: a lot of female characters try this at different times.
    • Special mention to Sayeesa, a lust witch, who's power invokes this at all times, and proves instrumental in the final battle of Her Majesty's Wizard.
  • Easy Evangelism: All over the place. Several times a novel, some minor villain will find themselves controlled by the devil, once a main character (whether Matt, Saul, or someone else) frees them they'll immediately repent.
  • Evil Chancellor: Malingo, being the reason Astaulf was even able to usurp the throne to begin with.
  • Fantastic Racism: Dragons are highly prejudice against dracogriffs.
  • Fish out of Temporal Water: Matthew. It's in his favor, though, and other characters are willing to overlook his 20th-century eccentricities for the sake of his brilliant wizardry.
  • Guardian Angel: Saul summons one, though, as an agnostic, he can't fully accept its existence.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Sayeesa, with Max's help, is the one to destroy Malingo at the end of the first novel, at the cost of her own life.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Each novel's title ends with "Wizard", except for "The Witch Doctor".
  • Istanbul (Not Constantinople): Many names are traceable to influences in our history. Merovence, for instance, takes its name from the same dynasty of French kings that The Merovingian is named after.
  • Like a Duck Takes to Water: Matthew and Saul. (Later, Matt brings his parents over as well. They are just as proficient at magic as he is.) Having access to centuries of advances and examples in the art of poetry gives them a major advantage.
  • Literal Genie: Magic in this series is shaped by words, so phrasing is important. See Be Careful What You Wish For.
  • Meaningful Name: Sir Guy introduces himself in Her Majesty's Wizard as "Sir Guy Losobal," which Matt works out as the Merovencian equivalent to "Sir Guy, the Black Knight." ("Le sable would be how you say "the black" in French.) Later on in the book, it's revealed that his real name is Sir Guy de Toutarien. Toutarien = 'toute ou rien' (all or nothing); if evil completely takes over, it'll be his cue to rebuild Hardishane's empire.
  • Meeting-the-Parents Sequel: Matthew's parents come to Merovence in book five, My Son, The Wizard, just in time to help the kingdom meet a Moorish invasion.
  • Mix-and-Match Critters: Matthew meets a "dracogriff" during the second book. The necessary Hot Skitty-on-Wailord Action is deconstructed. Short version: griffons have an estrus cycle that clouds their judgement, and a dragon took advantage. Since both species are otherwise sentient, this is considered rape by everyone who hears about it.
  • Normal Fish in a Tiny Pond: Matthew is an Outside-Context Problem for a lot of other people in the series due to also being a Fish out of Temporal Water.
  • Orphaned Series: Downplayed. This franchise is relatively episodic, without much in the way of continuity aside from the addition of characters who will occasionally receive Call Backs. That said, no Grand Finale was ever released before Stasheff's death in 2018.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: They have their own government and arguably a nation as well.
  • Prefers Raw Meat: Creatures like the dragon Stegoman and the Dracogriff Narlh are intelligent and friendly to the protagonist, but only take their meat "hot and fresh". Narlh can't stomach cooked meat at all and is surprised that something so foul-tasting can smell so delicious.
  • The Promise: in the second book, The Oathbound Wizard, Matthew rashly swears to conquer the neighboring kingdom of Ibile, as his common birth is preventing him from marrying Alisande. The universe holds you to your promises.
  • Railroading: After his rash promise (see below), Matthew finds himself magically transported into the kingdom he swore to conquer and unable to leave until he conquers it.
  • Rash Promise: In a heated argument with his Queen, Matthew impulsively shouts that he swears to God he'll depose a nearby Sorcerous Overlord or die trying, only to find out that such oaths are irrevocably binding in their Magical Land. His next attempt to cast a spell teleports him deep into the overlord's realm to make good on his word.
  • Reality Warper: Any wizard would count, but special mention goes to Frisson, a genius-savant who comes up with brilliant poetry as easily as breathing... which, given the setting's Functional Magic, can go Off the Rails real fast.
  • Recycled Script: A weirdly blatant example, the Grendel scene from the second book is repeated verbatim in the third with the names changed to the closest equivalent in the new party even though it means the characters refer to and use abilities they don't actually have and ignore the ones they do. The troll trying to fly away is a highlight.
  • Rescue Romance: Matthew breaks himself and Alisande out of Malingo's prison and from there it's obvious they will end up together... But not without some entertaining Belligerent Sexual Tension along the way.
  • Rhyming Wizardry: Any rhyme can have the magical power to make what it describes come true. The quality of the verse can make a difference: a well-phrased, well-loved old song packs a lot more power than a slapdash off-the-cuff couplet, for example.
  • Rightful King Returns: Multiple:
    • Subverted. There's stories of a descendent of Emperor Hardishane, a King in the Mountain who will return to Set Right What Once Went Wrong if evil manages to overwhelm all of Europe. All Myths Are True, and such a man does exist, but he's striving with all his might to prevent his own crowning, as it can only take place After the End. (It's Sir Guy.)
    • Similarly, the rightful male-line heir to the ancient Empire of the Latini-Etruscan Federation of old Latruria, and through it Reme, abdicates any right he has to the throne in favor of becoming modern Latruria's first university professor.
  • Rousseau Was Right: Temptation is all over the place, Matthew actually came close to ending up in Hell, but redemption is also readily available.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something: All over the place. Whether villainous or virtuous, there's one thing to be said for the royals of this alternate Europe: they work for their crowns.
  • Sharpened to a Single Atom: Matthew magics himself such a sword in the first book.
  • Succession Crisis: Not only is this how some evil rulers take charge, but there's a genuine one at the end of the second book. Of the two people competing for their grandfather's throne, one is the eldest son's daughter, the other the younger son's son. (Solved when the lady marries a third party, removing herself from the line of succession.)
  • Sex Magic: Sayeesa from the first novel is a variation, in the form of a Lust Witch. It takes Alisande to break her hold over Matthew.
  • Succubi and Incubi: Succubi appear but the book doesn't do a good job at explaining what they actually are.
  • Sufficiently Analyzed Magic: Increasingly as the series goes on and the characters have time to study it. Basically, magic seems to be a malleable energy invoked and shaped by Rule of Symbolism, with words being the most convenient symbols. Also, Magic Wands work by focusing a field of magic into a more intense beam, like a spotlight as opposed to a bare bulb.
  • Suddenly Ethnicity: We don't find out that Matthew is actually 3/4 Spanish until the fifth book in the series when we meet his parents.
  • Talking Is a Free Action: Zigzagged. In some battle situations, Matthew snaps out rhymed couplets to cast his spells. In another, he recites much of Byron's "She walks in beauty, like the night."
  • Too Dumb to Live: A pimp in the beginning of The Haunted Wizard brags after he's arrested that no man would ever convict him. He's promptly told that well, in that case, they'll make sure the Queen is the one who presides over his trial.
  • True Neutral: Invoked Trope. Saul is a major ally for the good guys and a hero in his own right, but he refuses to accept their religion or belief system in favor of systematically studying how magic really works in this setting, and makes sure to commit a "technical sin" (like eating meat on Friday) for every good deed he does. The religious characters are rather bemused by this.
    • Similarly, but for different reasons, King Boncorro in The Secular Wizard does evil things for the good of his country so he'll be richer so he can stop throwing more and more depraved Bread and Circuses at his nobles so he can be rich so he can keep from going to Heaven while not falling into the grasp of Hell- a good example of Stupid Neutral with a heart of gold if ever there was one. His genuinely evil chancellor warping his plans was behind a lot of that.
  • Unreliable Expositor: A few books in it's revealed that the initial idea of this world operating entirely on Christian theology with Satan and the Saints powering all magic is a local misconception, and in fact All Myths Are True. Although the version of Catholicism practiced in the Europe equivalent is the "correct" religion, Islam is considered close enough and magic works fine even for cultures with no real religious equivalent to the Christian god or devil.
  • Weird Trade Union: In The Secular Wizard, once Mathew discovers that all crime in King Boncorro's country has unionized, with a different guild for each type of crime- the pickpocket guild, the burglar guild, the mugger guild, the robber guild, the murderer guild...
  • Wimp Fight: In The Secular Wizard, two squires try fighting unarmed. Unfortunately, the only kind of fighting they actually know how to do is sword fighting, so they mostly just land a lot of painful but not actually damaging blows until one gets a lucky hit to the solar plexus.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: at one point, Matthew returns to "our" dimension after five years in Merovence, to discover that it's been three days since he left. This inches into Narnia Time territory, since Saul had been transported into Merovence searching for him after he'd been missing several days years previously from their perspective.