“The Devil made me do it!”
The late Flip Wilson used it as an excuse when he played “Geraldine” in skits. It’s been used as a defense in court. And, it is - sort of, kind of - the premise for Dave Duncan’s fantasy novel Speak to the Devil. After all, the Church clergy reasons, where else could the mysterious voices come from that the Speakers (those who can communicate with the ones causing the voices) hear, other than from the Devil himself, tricking - and in so doing, damning - humans? That the voices claim to be coming from saints is irrelevant to the Church; of course they would claim such a thing to ensnare poor, gullible mortals, wouldn’t they?
Speak to the Devil kicks off a new series set in 15th-century Europe - a somewhat twisted version of Europe, anyway. The Brothers Magnus series follows the lives and adventures of the five Magnus brothers. Speak to the Devil focuses primarily upon Anton and Wulfgang, the youngest of the Magnus brothers, whose family motto (Omnia audere) translates as “I dare any odds.” And dare them they do, in this suspenseful, action-packed adventure in which they must play the odds, skirting a fine line between what the Church deems to be morally right and what is the best course to take for their own advancement and welfare.
Though the brothers’ father is a Count, and royal blood courses through their veins, their country has fallen upon relatively hard economic times, and there is only so much money to go around between five brothers. Anton is, at the beginning of the story, a new and penniless hussar in the employ of the king, with Wulfgang as his squire. Anton desperately wants to rise through the ranks and gain enough money to ransom their older brother, Vlad, so within two weeks of joining the ranks of the hussars, he stages a stunt that displays his skills at horsemanship. His horse jumps over a tall hedge along a stream, which is bordered on its other side by another tall hedge. Cardinal Zdenek, aka the Scarlet Spider, informs Anton that some of the other members of the king’s entourage weren’t as fortunate: “Seven men, injured, two of them crippled for life. Four horses were destroyed.”
Anton suspects that Cardinal Zdenek is convinced that the only way he could have succeeded at jumping the hedge where the others failed is if he was a Speaker. That is something Anton can’t admit to - both because if he did, he’d risk being burnt at the stake, and also because it wasn’t he but his brother Wulfgang who spoke to the voices and requested their help. He doesn’t want to rat on his brother, either, and he feels that Zdenek is trying to trap him.
The Scarlet Spider is, indeed, trying to trap him - not to punish him for communicating with the Devil, but to enlist his aid in a task that demands the utmost speed. Zdenek wants Anton to deliver a reply to a message sent from Castle Gallant, in the town of Jorgary. The Cardinal has reason to believe from the message they sent that their borders might be besieged soon by the Wends, the country of Pomerania, or both working in alliance. Zdenek tells Anton that Count Bokovany and his son Petr have both died, the Count from a severe stroke and the son from being “fatally gored,” by a wild boar. There may not be anyone Anton can trust in the town to assist him, if needed.
The risks are high, but the rewards Zdenek offers him are very large: a sack of gold; a baldric that is proof to all that he is on a mission from the king; letters presenting him as Count Magnus of Cardice (the county that Jorgary and Castle Gallant are in) and naming him as “lord of the marches”; and an edict that states he will “marry Madlenka Bukovany,” Count Bukovany’s daughter. This is the chance Anton has been looking for, but despite his reputation as an excellent horseman and a speedy rider, there’s no way he can make the trip in time to make sure Castle Gallant won’t fall into enemy hands without Wulfgang’s mystical help, Anton accepts the duty, but he stipulates that he “shall take my brother with me.” Zdenek agrees, knowing all along that it is not Anton but Wulfgang who is the Speaker. The Cardinal chooses to overlook this because the safety of Castle Gallant and the preservation of their borders is paramount.
Wulfgang initially refuses Anton’s request; he doesn’t want to ask the voices for help for fear that they are perhaps from the Devil instead of from saints. Also, he fears that if they can accomplish what Zdenek asks, he will be demonstrating proof that he is a Speaker. There is no other way someone could travel on horseback that quickly. Not only that, but whenever he requests help from the voices, there is always a price to be paid in the physical damage and beating that his body takes.
In the end, Wulfgang agrees, but the effort practically kills him and he must recuperate for several days. Anton, as the new Count, uncovers the conniving schemes of various disloyal factions and the enemy. He also orders that Wulfgang get the best of care. However, the castle’s doctor is a quack, prescribing medicines like hemlock and henbane for Wulfgang, and his other patients seem to have the plague - not optimal conditions for recovering from the effects of the miracle he’s performed with the aid of the voices. Realizing this, Anton places his brother under the care of Madlenka and her best friend, Guidre. Madlenka has seemed to be accepting her fate of marrying to Anton, but she starts having feelings for Magnus, as well.
Speak to the Devil is a fast-paced and full of enough fantasy and magic to please the most discriminating fans of the fantasy genre. This promising start to “The Brothers Magnus” series displays Duncan’s immense talents at their fullest. He has definitely researched the society, culture, weapons, and warfare of the era, and it shows in the realistic details he brings to the narrative.