The Traveler in Black

by John Brunner
Reviewed date: 2007 Jun 25
222 pages
cover art

The universe hangs in balance between chaos and order. Magic is chaos; rationality and logic are order. One man's task is to bring order and eliminate chaos. He is the traveler in black.

The traveler brings order by giving people what they wish for. But he gives in a poetic sense. Those who are blessed by the traveler get exactly what they ask for, but not what they want. For example:

"By your favor, sir," said a boy of ten or twelve years, hunting a hedgerow near the village Wyve, "are such plants poisonous or wholesome?"
Offering for inspection a glabrous brownish fungus.
"Wholesome," said the traveler. "They may be fried."
With a moue, the boy tossed the toadstool aside.
"Are you not glad to have found that it's edible?" asked the traveler. "I took it you were gathering food."
"No, sir," said the boy. His voice and eyes were older than his years. "I seek poisons to give to my mother; she rules me unkindly and will not let me do whatever I like."
He sighed enormously. "Ah, that I might recognize instanter what may be relied upon to entrain death!"
"As you wish, so be it," said the traveler, and went on, leaving the boy weeping because he realized: no matter what diet is chosen, sooner or later death ensues.

The book consists of four separate stories. The prose is unlike any other Brunner book I've encountered. It sounds like Jack Vance. The stories are not compelling. The prose is interesting, but not sufficiently so. Give this a pass.

  • Imprint of Chaos: The once-rational people of Ryovora demand a god, so the traveler gives them one: a man named Bernard Brown. When Ryovora is attacked by the overgrown Quadruple God of Acromel, Bernard Brown uses logic to see what the Ryovora's sorcerers cannot: Acromel's god is but an overgrown child.
  • Break the Door of Hell: The people of Ys remember the golden age of their city, and lament its present condition. Rather than clean their rivers and rebuild their city, they use magic to reanimate their ancestors, expecting their ancestors to fix everything.
  • The Wager Lost By Winning: Villagers in Wantwich are taken as slaves by Lord Fellian, upon whom Lady Luck smiles. Fellian intends to use them as stakes in gambling games, which are his pastime.
  • Dread Empire: An unnatural night descends upon the world. Sorcerers conjure demons to fight the darkness, but fail. The traveler helps defeat chaos, and exits into nonexistence.

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