Review: 'Archival: Most Secret', by Rob S. Rice
The back-cover blurb for Archival: Most Secret is accurate but misleading.
Join the heir to a faerie legacy and his bloody companion on a journey that ends before the very ramparts of New Orleans and in the smoke of a terrifying battle. What was the secret Winston Churchill’s valet sought to share with his employer from beyond the grave? Meet Flight Lieutenant Neville ‘Bunny’ Edwards, who in the course of the Second World War loses his humanity, but never his courage or his determination to stay in the fighting.
This makes the book sound like a collection of three stories that are each about a man transformed into an animal. Instead, men are transformed into animals in wholesale lots.
In these three stories, in the form of letters, diaries, journal entries, and interviews covering the years 1805-14, 1894, and 1941, magic is so prevalent that a secret Ministry of the British government has to be formed to practice and combat it.
That magic predates the Ministry itself is evident:
On board Seahorse, Montego Bay, The Bermudas, May 10, 1814
Dear Doctor D________:
It is most pleasant to be in communication by the packet-dispatch once again, especially as I have obeyed, as descried, the Ministry’s order to forego all use of the sphere given the fortunate escape of Pique from the American frigate and the very great danger to the Mediterranean convoy any American interception of our s_____g would permit. That the Americans have adepts and manipulators of their own, of course, has been apparent since Saratoga, and I commend most heartily the Ministry’s caution. This war is still capable of being lost.
The first story, “Materials Related to the Disappearance of Major James MacLeod, Temp. att’d to the 85th Regiment of Foot”, is set during the War of 1812, but many references for the historically-minded hint at earlier events. The Battle of Saratoga took place during September-October 1777. Reading between the lines of these letters, apparently the British and Americans had a secret treaty during the War of 1812 to limit their spellcasting struggles to attempts to control the weather and other manipulations not directly against humans. Unfortunately for the British, the 1815 Battle of New Orleans put the invading British Army against a Louisiana full of exiles from French Canada conquered by the British barely two generations earlier, not to mention royalist exiles from the Terror of the French Revolution who may have despised Napoleon but were little friendlier to France’s traditional enemy. The magic-workers among these French settlers in New Orleans did not consider themselves bound by any treaties between the American and British governments:
The following early morning one of the men was found in only a shirt on his knees and wrists devouring tufts of grass near the tent of the guard in question, while the others within were all in Stage 1 Metamorphosis, the pigments of their eyes gone entirely brown, and exhibiting great difficulty in rising and understanding speech. The Sergeant himself seemed to be in better condition, although the Lieutenant in question noted the budding of bovine horns on the sides of the skull when the sergeant doffed his cap upon entering the Lieutenant’s tent.
These and such events as the transformation of a member of the British Ministry into an alligator, are incidental to the main story of what happened to the most disagreeable Major James MacLeod. “From the Chartwell Papers: The Walden Manuscript” jumps ahead to 1894-95 in a long letter to Winston Churchill from his father’s valet, written much later and delivered after Walden’s death, revealing what really befell Lord Randolph that was publicly attributed to an early death in 1895 from syphilitic paresis. The “Transcripted Interview 14-453” with R.A.F. Squadron Leader Edwards is recorded in 1967 but covers action during the failed British defense of Crete against the Germans in 1941.
You may be able to guess what happens to the three men by the fact that Archival: Most Secret is illustrated by Donna Barr, particularly if you are familiar with Barr’s Stinz and Bosom Enemies comic book stories of the late 1980s. From early in Lord Randolph’s transformation:
Lord Randolph pulled his hand free and stared down at his wife angrily. His large head made him look a bit ill-proportioned when he stood. I thought (forgive me, Sir), but sitting it gave him considerable presence. Your mother shrank from the wide-eyed anger of his stare.
‘I shall not hear more of this. You wished to see America, so shall we. I have no desire… whatsoever to go to Norway and… Ee-ee-ee! live on Kippers. I’m more fit than I’ve been in weeks. Walden! Tell them! Is that not so?’
And ‘Bunny’ Edwards’ observation, after his transformation, of the Resistance on Crete:
By that I assured myself that she wanted me to keep my teeth together, and I determined to do just that, after Nikos came back with a fellow who I could tell smelled differently before I ever saw him. It was the ears that gave him away after that, for he wore the same embroidered tunics, headband, tassels, and belts that Nikos and his fellows did. He said something in a laughing voice when he saw Thalia next to my litter, but raised his hands, palms out, and backed away, tail flitting (his was like a horse’s) when Nikos and the rest laid back their ears and bared their teeth at him. There was some pause while everyone calmed down. Then he motioned us all onwards, and we soon found ourselves standing in a rough corral made of stone, with two more of the horse-folk, ‘silenoi’, and some dogs, regarding we donkey-folk, ‘onosilenoi’.
Rob S. Rice is a lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Pennsylvania, but he shows here that he is equally knowledgeable in more recent American and British history. The background about the War of 1812, Lord Randolph Churchill’s political career and personal life, and the R.A.F. during 1940 and ’41 is detailed and helps make the fantastic elements of the stories more plausible. The three tales are separate but each show Britain’s top-secret “M. o. M.” in action across more than 150 years, as well as glimpses of transformational magic in the Americas, in the Mediterranean, and in the Orient. The old-fashioned writing styles of the early and late 19th century may put some off, but in general Archival: Most Secret is worth seeking out by Renard’s Menagerie’s readers.
Reprinted from “Renard’s Menagerie” #7, July 2008.