The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, Harry Turtledove

Baen, 1993, 367 pages, C$7.50 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-72196-8

Harry Turtledove has made quite a name for himself in one particular sub-genre of SF: Alternate history. What if racist time-travellers had brought AK-47 to the Rebels? (The Guns of the South) What if alien invaders had interfered with WWII? (The “Balance” series) What if…?

The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump might be considered alternate history, if one is of sufficiently open mind: What if magic replaced technology as the engine of our civilization?

Consider: David Fisher is an EPA (Environmental Perfection Agency) bureaucrat in a world where people travel by magic carpet, where alarm clock contain imported timekeeping demons and where spell-checkers are much less concerned with grammar than with sorcery… Yep, it’s a magical wacky wonderland. California still has traffic jams, pollution, illegal immigrants, environmental hazards and all the other trappings of a modern civilization, but if the end result is the same, the means are considerably different.

When Fisher is called in to investigate mysterious reports of a leaking toxic spell dump, he’s blissfully unaware that his seemingly-innocuous probes could be the start of the Third Sorcerous War…

It’s humorous in intent (as if the title wasn’t a giveaway!) and light-hearted in execution. Turtledove casts even the slightest pun, and leaves no small gags un-summoned. Fisher is a sympathetic narrator, and the style is readable, even if most readers will want to pay a bit more attention to the throwaway jokes.

The plot wanders around a bit, giving us a tour of Fisher’s world, but then goes back more or less on track. Even then, the conclusion is disappointing. The last few pages are almost an anticlimax; the girlfriend-character is poorly treated in the last third of the novel. Stephen Hickman’s cover is very pretty in a pseudo-classic way, but the relation between the cover art and the content of the novel is less than evident.

It’s not a great book, but it’s entertaining reading, and doesn’t really assume that the reader has a substandard IQ. Furthermore, it’s a blast for everyone who’s already wondered what would happen if all religious beliefs were real, and how to build a computer-era civilization when magic is so readily available. (Microimps, anyone?)

Of course, anyone who’s allergic to puns will want to steer clear, as well as those who can’t tolerate “light” books. The others will read this book with a smile on their face and an amusement spell on their minds.

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