An Appetiser for Selenoth

Summa Elvetica: A Casuistry of the Elvish Controversy & Other Stories by Vox Day, Castalia House, January 10th, 2017
(originally published by Marcher Lord Press on October 1st, 2008)

It is a certainly pleasant to be able to cleanse my palette of the corked plonk that was Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and switch to a far more pleasing vintage. Vox Day’s epic fantasy series began a decade ago with the release of A Throne of Bones which was an epic 800+ page beginning to the series which imagines the Roman Empire combined with an already ascendant Catholic Church existing parallel in a fantasy world of elves, dwarves and goblins — at the very least already a refreshing alternative to the usual heavily Medieval influence. Around half of the sequel was released digitally a few years later but it wasn’t until late last year that the full A Sea of Skulls was finally published. The physical release is still forthcoming as of writing so in preparation, I have been re-reading the earlier stories and am about to re-read A Throne of Bones for the first time since I read it a decade ago.

The series of course began more modestly with the subject of this post, Summa Elvetica: A Casuistry of the Elvish Controversy. This was originally released as a standalone book but subsequent releases include all the short stories the author wrote in the same setting — one which is actually even older. I describe the titular work and the short stories as an appetiser as they are certainly not a prerequisite for beginning the main course but are still worth trying before or even after for those that are still peckish. I actually didn’t read any of these until after finishing A Throne of Bones and I don’t think I’d read every one until very recently — though my memory may just be failing.

As the author explains in a note at the end, Summa Elvetica was originally a far more ambitious work that fell far short of the its original scope. Nonetheless, it is still a good story that well establishes the setting of Selenoth — I note also more through the progression of the narrative than through clumsy world-building. What remains of the original goal of the novel exists through the plot which tasks the young scholar from a patrician family, Marcus Valerius with joining a church delegation to the Elven capital of Elebrion. Under consideration is whether or not Elves have immortal souls but political intrigue and conflicting motivations feed into the adventure. I found on re-reading that the speed of events significantly accelerate in the end and I thought the time at Elebrion could have been extended but it still draws to a satisfying conclusion.

As might be inferred, the title comes from Saint Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and one of the most interesting bits in the book is an imitation of the dumb ox’s articles included at the end. It is so close in Aquinas’ style that if elves existed, it would be easy to believe he actually wrote it. I have read about an eighth of the Summa so I was familiar enough with the style and could perhaps appreciate it more than the average reader.

This leads into another aspect I enjoyed about the book which is the sincere appreciation of both clergy and the church throughout all included stories. Modern fantasy almost invariably paints the church as corrupt and sinister with little (if any) nuance. I’ll be among the first to admit that church history is littered with corruption, nepotism, political intrigue and other evils but it also has plenty of good. There were plenty of men and women who devoted their life to serving God as best they knew. Aquinas above is the perfect example as he spent his relatively short life totally devoted to defending and enriching the church through his writing and his output was nothing short of superhuman. There are also many souls among the laity and religious known now only to God who were similarly devoted to the Faith with the gifts they were given. While the evils are present within these stories, so too is the good found within the church and an appreciation for this reality is shown through a fantasy setting which ultimately makes it more authentic.

There are other smaller outward aspects. The use of Latin-style language which is not actually meant to be proper Latin — which some detractors have completely missed. There are also direct references to other famous saints including Saint Augustine as well as Christ though with different but recognisable names. This is also true of the Amorran Empire which is recognisably Roman though of course with changes. 

As already mentioned, it is not necessary to have read these to begin the main series but they do flesh out the backstory and introduce characters that appear later. The dwarf Lodi for example appears in both Summa Elvetica and in A Magic Broken. The elf Bessarias who is an elderly convert in the title story has his backstory fleshed out in Master of Cats and Opera Vita Aeterna — the latter being the final story in the volume also neatly circles back to the title story in the final pages. The Last Witchking and Qalabi Dawn give the backstory of a demonic race that is prominent in the main series. The Wardog’s Coin and The Hoblets of Wiccam Fensboro appear to be self-contained stories though set in the same world — though there may be connections I missed. The latter story is the one that I mentioned was the earliest story set in Selenoth so can not be considered “Canon” but is one of the best. 

Opera Vita Aeterna is notorious for receiving a Hugo Award nomination in 2014 for Best Novelette. If the Hugo’s were even half of what they once were it would have certainly been in the running. Larry Correia was certainly sincere in recommending it for nomination and I share his appreciation for a simple but moving story of a strange visitors lengthy stay in a monastery. I was actually involved in the Rabid Puppies and voted for it without having read it or any of the others on the slate. Though the intention was never to win but more along the lines of creative destruction through bloc voting. It is worth mentioning this because this does indicate a personal connection that affects my opinion. 

As it has been years since I last read A Throne of Bones, I may have to make some changes when I read it again but I recommend Summa Elvetica & Other Stories. Certainly, if you’re curious about the main series but unsure about committing, any one of these stories will give a you an idea of what to expect.

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