Read this book if you’ve always wanted to meet the people that you’ve only known on the flat dry page of print. If you want the protagonist himself to be one of those people? You’re out of luck.
Silverlock begins as the protagonist, A. Clarence Shandon, begins a cruise on the Naglfar. He’s not a sympathetic character at all, dull and pointless to the extent that he bores even himself–the book begins with Shandon saying “If I had cared to live, I would have died.” The main action begins when the Naglfar sinks, Shandon being the sole survivor adrift in a strange sea on a scrap of wrack. In the first few pages he meets an amalgam of all bards, witnesses the sinking of the Pequod, is transformed by Circe, lands on Crusoe’s island, and is almost run down by the Ancient Mariner, all before making landfall on the mainland, which is when things start getting interesting. Over the course of the book, Shandon, now nicknamed Silverlock for the streak of white in his hair, travels the length of the Commonwealth and over and under it as well, meeting in the course of his travels a great many people from literature, plays, folklore and myth…being a non-reader, Silverlock recognizes none of them. Some characters may be immediately recognizable, such as Robin Hood, Beowulf and Don Quijote. Some references are to situations rather than characters–poling a raft down a river or eating at a ‘day and night joint’ at which the only diners are a mouse, a rabbit and a rather peculiar twitchy man in a top hat. Some are drawn from Great Literature–near the end of the book, Shandon and Golias join a group of pilgrims who each in turn tell a story as they travel–while others are from more frivolous sources, such as Ruddigore, and yet more are mentioned only in passing, in a story, song or conversation.
Sixty years after the book’s publication, yes, the writing style is outdated now and I suspect was more than slightly stilted even when new. Is it as brilliant as the introductions indicate? I think so, but not as an independent work in its own right; I’ve always enjoyed it for the chance to tot up how many of the secondary characters and situations I can recognize, and that seems to be the assessment of the people who liked it over on Goodreads. If you’re after brilliant original fantasy, no, Silverlock is not for you. Was that ever the point of the book? My take is that it’s more a celebration of literature through the ages, and the delight in discovering (or rediscovering) the joy in simply reading. None of the characters are particularly developed, least of all Silverlock himself, though I’d argue that they don’t need to be so developed here in this book; the eponymous Silverlock could be read as “Everyreader”, and the subsidiary characters’ main development lies elsewhere…and hopefully, Silverlock will prompt the real external readers to go find the original work and read that work. Silverlock is more a voyage of discovery, no more a book in its own right than those Introductory English textbooks with a chapter of this, a selection of this and a verse or two of something else.
This should not be any reader’s first fantasy novel–that’ll put just about anybody off the genre. If you haven’t read much literature, be sure you get A Silverlock Companion (now published as part of NESFA’s reissue) otherwise, you’ll be adrift in a sea of literature without that vital bit of spar to bring you to safety. Thirty years of reading, a degree in English and another in library science, and fifteen years of librarianship later, I’m still looking for some of the references in Silverlock; less experienced readers can make a librarian very happy by marching to their nearest public library and saying “I’ve just read this book; got any of the bibliography in your collection?”
What to read next? There are several books I can think of off the top of my head which use the “protagonist entering into fiction or interacting with fictional characters” if I may use that description of something which is, after all, itself fiction according to the lights of anyone reading this entry. I’ve already written an entry about Marvin Kaye’s Incredible Umbrella and Amorous Umbrella, but other possible books might be L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt’s “Enchanter” series (the Incompleat and the Compleat versions) and Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, or the first four anyway. Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and Anansi Boys might be enjoyable as well, but in that case, the fictional (or in this case, the mythological) characters come to us in the real world.