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The Little Kings

(This review by Nathan Childers is reprinted from the Fall, 1998 issue of The Varinoma Quarterly by permission of the author.)

The Little Kings, Elmer Gantry, Biodegradable Press, Oshkosh Falls, 1998, hardcover.


Biodegradable Press has an ambiguous reputation in the publishing industry. Its main stock in trade are works printed on non-stick paper which are meant to be read with one hand. However the publisher's nephew, Henry Nutworth, heads a division which has literary pretensions. (Nutworth has a PhD in postmodern poetry.) From the number of new publications appearing recently from the Nutworth division it can be inferred that Biodegradable Press is doing very well indeed. The Reverend Gantry is best known for his popular inspirational works; however he is also a scholar of note, best known for his studies of 11'th century folklore and his definitive Life and Times of Plotinus. This novel is a venture into the "alternate universe" genre.

In this work, set in the 15'th century, Gantry replays the conflict between the Persian Empire and the free states of Greece. To do this he violates the genre convention of making only one major assumption by rewriting both the history of Asia and Europe. (Whether he also rewrites biology is a matter I leave to the scientists.)

In our time line the Mongols, led by Ogotai Khan and his descendents, decimated Islam in the 12'th century and eliminated Byzantium in 1354. In Gantry's Asia, Byzantium conquered Persia in 689. The religious conflicts in the Byzopersian Empire were resolved in a series of internal civil wars which produced Gnostic Zorochristianity. Islam never got off the ground. Civil wars and the Mongol/Byzopersian wars absorbed the attention of the Empire until 1400; Europe was ignored.

The history of Europe is rewritten more radically. Gantry postulates that in Ireland in the 9'th century a mutation occurs which produces true hereditary midgets. Midgets and dwarves were popular fixtures in the royal courts at the time. In Ireland, which already had a long standing folklore about "the little people", they became an influential caste. Ireland, which was eventually renamed Verdantia, was a center of learning. The little people saw this as their route to power; they became the learned class first of Verdantia and eventually of all of Christian Europe. Over time they became first the advisors to kings and then, by various shifts, seized royal power for themselves. Europe is never unified. The early history of Europe being dominated by the Verdantian/Frisian conflict. By 1400, however, the city states of Italy led Europe; the other realms had been reduced to client states.

This work has an unusual structure. The first third of the work is a pseudo-historical account of the events in Asia. The second is a pseudo-historical account of the events in Europe. The final third is an epic poem telling the confrontation between the Byzopersian Empire and the Little Kings. The analogy with the ancient confrontation is strictly preserved with Venice playing the role of Sparta and Bologna playing the role of Athens. The epilog is incomprehensible.

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