The cycle of power, from revolution to decline, is the bread and butter of epic fantasy. E.R.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros openly displaying the idea in its title and Tolkien penning a vast epic to describe the end of the Third Age, to say it is one of the most common tropes of the sub-genre (though for some I realize it is genre) would be selling it short. It thus takes a special hand, an approach which make characters real and a method that invites readers into the story, to make a story (or series) stick out from the herd. So while Terry Brooks was doing his best to assimilate in 1977, Richard Cowper was writing a story he hoped would stand out. The Road to Corlay published in 1978, it opens with the novella The Piper at the Gates of Dawn as its prologue, and expands from there. The result: a novel that time has inexplicably forgotten—inexplicable as Brooks is still remembered—but is deserving of renewed attention.
The Road to Corlay opens with the story of an elderly storyteller named Peter and his young traveling companion, Tom. On their way to York to enroll Tom as an apprentice cleric, the two strike up a special friendship. Tom’s skills as a flutist complementing Peter’s tales beautifully, the two rake in the cash on the journey. Peter loathe to give up the boy once they arrive in York, he plays off Tom’s strange visions and convinces him to stay on the road for another half a year. Trouble is, they never get a chance. Events conspiring to prevent their road trip, a wrench is thrown into the works of the kingdom on the eve of the fourth millennium as a wildfire of belief spreads itself across the land.
Set in Britain 2999 AD, society has reverted to medievalism after an environmental catastrophe, called the Drowning, melted the glacial ice caps and flooded the Earth. A powerful theocracy called the Church Militant has taken power and applies force in keeping a fragmented society united under one banner. With word of a strange new religion people are calling the Kinship spreading under it nose, they send their knights and priests to suppress heresy and get a better understanding of the practices of believers. Peter and Tom kindling a spark, the Church soon finds a threat where they never thought one could appear.
For as epic as that last paragraph sounds, Cowper keeps events in The Road to Corlay rooted in a handful of characters, and never tries to expand into territory too vast to fill with story. Thomas, a man found floating in the sea, anchors the main storyline after the prologue, and it’s his quest from which the title of the novel is taken. Meeting a young woman in the underground, Thomas receives help fulfilling his goal by Kate, a young woman cut off from her family. Sent by the Archbishop to get a better understanding of young Tom’s history, Bishop Francis traipses the countryside and towns, gleaning information and making reports to the Church. And between and through it all, the falcons, soldiers of the Church, hunt for heretics while delivering their own brand of justice. These perspectives and few side characters are the main threads of the novel, Cowper effectively jumping around between them to tell the tale that feels big but is based on a small number of elements.
Surprisingly not a work of fantasy, The Road to Corlay is actually a work of science fantasy. A portion of the story set in contemporary Britain (i.e. 1970s), Dr. Carver, a scientist doing work on the brain, is found comatose at the outset. His colleagues, after a series of tests, realize that his sentience has somehow been transferred a thousand years in the future and now occupies Thomas’ mind, and by attaching a monitor are able to see what he sees. Cowper barely scratching the surface of this sub-story, it remains for the second two volumes in the series, A Dream of Kinship and A Tapestry of Time, to explain the significance of the contemporary. Along with Thomas’ storyline, the overall plot reaches a convenient resting point at the end of the novel, but leaves many unanswered questions, Dr. Carver’s out of body experience foremost among them.
It is thus somewhat early to determine with certainty what Cowper’s aims are for the White Bird of Kinship series. Certainly religion, cycles of power, prophecy, socio-political upheaval (aka revolution), and other standard epic fantasy motifs are present. But given the contemporary storyline, as well as Cowper’s obvious willingness to twist things in unpredictable fashion (see the climax of The Piper at the Gates of Dawn as proof), it remains to be seen.
In the end, The Road to Corlay is the opening of a three part epic fantasy series that never has pretensions for size. Set in far future Britain, the scope is limited to a small number of key figures as they try to stay one step ahead of a repressive religious order while protecting their own in a land gone medieval. I have seen comparison to Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book, and while there are some similarities, I think there are better parallels. Cowper’s intention is not to show off knowledge of the Medieval Ages, rather provide a broader view of transitional moments in history—or at least so it seems, a religious agenda even possible. Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine Castle, Keith Roberts’ monumental Pavane, and several of Moorcock’s novels thus have more concepts in common despite the differences in setting. That Cowper is as lyrically smooth as Silverberg, Roberts, and Moorcock makes the comparison all the stronger. If someone is interested in the book but still uncertain whether it’s worth the purchase, I would suggest reading the prologue (published separately as) The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. If it is liked, then so too will be the novel.