Cover image for X-calibre : the absurd legend of Cantiger the Wizard : the first book of the world-renowned, hitherto unknown Orsonian legends
X-calibre : the absurd legend of Cantiger the Wizard : the first book of the world-renowned, hitherto unknown Orsonian legends
Parker, Mark F., 1954-
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Publication Information:
New York : Carroll & Graf, 2000.
Physical Description:
316 pages ; 20 cm
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Comic fantasy collides with Arthurian legend in a riotous romp through the myths and mists of medieval Britain. A sorcerer's apprentice named Cantiger strives earnestly to master his profession in this rollicking, zany tale of medieval adventure. Instead he proves himself to be a most hapless conjurer, first stealing a magic spell from the seductive enchantress Garnish and then, quite by accident, bestowing a serpent's head upon her. Garnish is not pleased, and the bungling Cantiger spends the rest of this comic caper trying to escape her formidable wrath. Along his hilarious path to triumphant absurdity, the clueless Cantiger is not abetted by the host of unsavory creatures he encounters, be they macho warlords or comely witches, giants or dwarfs. He does, however, find an unlikely ally in the Laidly Worm, a ruthless reptile with an inordinate appetite for clotted cream and dishy damsels, who does not fail to burst wildly into action in the nick of time. Of course, this tale of wacky wizardry also features a large stone, a sword, and a hero who is the legendarily rightful heir to the throne of Loonis. Advance praise for X-Calibre: "At last, the real story can be told in everyday language a child of ten could understand - and without any rhymes. Of course, it will take a genius to get all the jokes." - Alfred Lord Tennyson, author of Idylls of the King

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Parker has chosen the too-well-trodden ground of Arthurian legend for his first original novel (he's published numerous TV novelizations). Incompetent wizard Cantiger is caught stealing spells from a sorceress named (for no apparent reason) Garnish. While escaping, he confuses his spells and gives Garnish a serpent head, earning her eternal enmity. In the meantime, Garnish's school friend and fellow sorceress Princess Marina Lamaya of Logris schemes to kill her father and take his throne. Unfortunately, a great stone sarsen appears on the lawn to skew her plans; carved into its surface are the fateful words, "Whosoever removeth this stone from this patch of grass is rightwise king or queen odÄsod itÄofÄLogris." Fortunately, Cantiger uncovers the sword "X-Calibre" from a soggy marsh and gives it to his conveniently met traveling companion, Orson, the youthful foster son of a minor lord. Orson is able to move the stone, but cannot wed Queen Marina when his parentage is revealed, for he is her brother. For all Parker's attempts to mimic the insane irony of Monty Python's Holy Grail or the wry tone (and pithy footnotes) of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, his book fails as both humor and fantasy. The characters never rise above caricature, the plot doesn't make much sense and the writing is bland. Sales may get some boost, especially in the college market, from comparison to the above-mentioned authors, and by appealing to fans of Arthurian legends and the absurd, but don't expect much. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One The she-wolf did not slaver as she followed Cantiger through the forest. She was provident and always laid in an elegant sufficiency of food long before slavering became necessary. Besides, she hated stereotypes. Stereotypes had massacred wolves in their thousands. If she wanted to eat a little girl, then she might slaver, in the certain knowledge that the brat would come closer to her than to any cooing, clucking grandmother . Grandmothers could consume you alive. Wolves just ate.     No one knows better than a wolf that clichés are death.     She slunk along the ditch, belly low, hunkers bunched and swaying, eyes fixed upon this appealingly scuttling meal. She smelled his fear. That was appetizing. She approved, too, the strange, happy little burbling sounds that proceeded from him. Other wolves might eat any old junk. She did not hold with meat processed by sunlight to yielding, tasteless pulp. "Fresh is best", she had always insisted. A modest shriek or death rattle was her sell-by label.     Cantiger was, in fact, far from happy. It was a bright autumn day, but it was dark in the forest. Every sound made him start. There were lots of sounds in the forest. His eyes jerked to left, to right, then swivelled round to scan the path behind him. His neck ached, and twice his head swerved so violently that he overbalanced and slithered to the muddy, mossy ground.     This was Loonis the remotest corner of Logris and less populated than most areas. For all that, there were animals aplenty, many of them heavy, many of them hostile. There were birds, too, which shrieked and cackled like jubilant hags. For defence, Cantiger had only a thickish branch wrenched from a passing larch and the hymns and spells that dribbled from his trembling lips.     The hymns were tuneless and all embracing, all appeasing: Kill my foes, rip off their somethings, Something, Lord Cernunnos, please! Something also, sweet Rosmerta, Anu, give the buggers fleas! Something, something, thingy, thingy, Hear thy servant who adores (nay implores!) Save him from their maws and jaws and claws!     As for the spells, they too were more speculative than formal. Cantiger did not actually know any spells. He just sort of vaguely hoped that he might happen upon one: "Urn, abeste infideles , bog off, beasties, thuraze chair ..." he drooled, having read other people's books, usually over their shoulders, and overheard them reading. He gulped. "Um ... oh, God (and, of course, any devils or demons if you're the right people to be talking to about this) ... If I survive this, t really never will sin again (or, if you're a demon, I'll become a really great sinner)and I'll never have impure thoughts again (or I'll plunge into reckless debauchery, whichever you fancy). Honest! Veni creator spartacus ... Ohdearohdearohdear..."     "Oh dear ..." was, in fact, the only component of this monologue that featured in currently effective spells.     On its own, however, it had no effect on the wolf. She scampered silently to within ten feet of the man.     As for the aurochs that stood around the corner just ahead of Cantiger, it was not even motivated by precepts of good husbandry.     An aurochs was the best advertisement yet invented for vegetarianism. A giant ox standing eight feet high at the shoulder, it just sort of liked charging and tossing and goring. For fun.     It was good at it. That was the thing. As with a trained soldier, that was as near as it got to a reason, nor did it seek further - well, that and the fizzing, popping crossfire of electric signals inside its giant head, the urgent surgent hormones in its pulsing veins.     It shook its head as though to sort out the mess in there. It did not work. The fizzing and popping continued. It lowered its head and dug a furrow in the ground ahead. It too heard Cantiger's babbling. It smelled soft mammal. Here came diversion.     "O, tempora, o, morons! Arse longer, feet are briefer ..." Cantiger whimpered.     The wolf slithered up on to the track. She darted forward to within four feet of Cantiger's heels.     Cantiger turned quickly - then turned quickly back again.     In the twilight his gaze had missed the crawling beast but he knew that there was trouble back there. Something swarmed up his spine. His voice climbed in pitch to a husky little squeak as he stumbled forward.     He resorted to poetry. "Bullock starteth, bucky farteth, I lick queer armour ... Um ... I sing of a midden that is mackerelles ... um ... Tim Or Mort is bugging me ... oh, Lord (or Lady), please, no ..."     He swung around the corner. He saw the aurochs. He slithered to a halt, He moaned, "Oh, shit," somewhat sadly.     The wolf hunkered back.     And leaped.     It was a first-class leap, made all the more impressive thanks to Cantiger. Had he stood still, it would have been interrupted at its apex and so would have lost distance and been messed about with splattering and such. As it was, it continued in a perfect parabola, losing style marks only for the downward lunge of the wolf's head and the snap of teeth where Cantiger's neck had just been.     Cantiger's performance was even more stylish. He stuck a foot out to the right, ducked down, then plunged fast to his left. He sprawled, and slid in the mud to find his head overhanging a deep ditch half filled with chortling water the colour of milky tea.     The wolf found to her surprise that a fat little man had suddenly changed into a luxury, real-hide-upholstered, careering, laden wagon with sharp, curvy, sticky-out bits.     Cantiger eyed the water beneath him. He sighed. He said, "Oh dear" again, and pushed himself down the steep bank.     The water gulped as he slid into it. The wet and slime slithered beneath his linen shift. When at last he extricated himself from the wet (the slime was still wriggling downward -- and, more alarmingly, upward -- on his skin), he peeked above the ditch's brim.     He was privileged to witness a rare confrontation. The wolf was now attached, growling and waffling, to the aurochs's throat, the aurochs striking with its great white forefeet and bobbing its woolly-fringed head at its assailant.     The wolf swung, but held on.     Cantiger knew little of such things. Natural history, for him, was just the unavoidable prehistory of dinner. His money, however, had he ever had any, would have been on the aurochs.     This assessment was based on his own experience. Cantiger was used to being small and, attempting, rather vainly, to be predatory. He had never willingly taken on anything bigger than a weasel, which had hurt him really quite badly. Nonetheless, certain big people had taken him on, for practice, so it seemed, or because they did not like the shape of his neck, or because they did not like his taking their property, even when he obviously intended putting it back when he got round to it.     These encounters had always left him feeling and looking worse than when they started.     Whilst Cantiger's sympathies, then, were with the wolf, his putative money rode with the aurochs.     He'd have been wrong either way.     There was the pudder of hooves and the jingle of harness from the direction from which he had just come. There was ragged male laughter and the clank of armour. Cantiger reluctantly turned from the fight. He ducked further down. Two brindle-and-white greyhounds bounded into view, snapping and grinning playfully at one another as greyhounds always beautifully will, then two grizzled and ticked black alaunts, burlier by far than the greyhounds, though as long in the leg.     Their expressions were serious and resolute. Cantiger's bowels contracted at the sight of them.     Then in danced a small pack of beagle-like brachets, nuzzling at one another and padding along on fat feet. Cantiger knew little of anything. He was frightened even of these. He made it a rule to be frightened of everything that he had not previously and successfully bullied, and even then he sometimes got a nasty surprise.     When the Riders hove into view, he was very frightened indeed. There were six of them, big men in black who looked all the bigger for their armour and their crested helms. They rode on glossy big horses at a steady canter, roaring conversation at one another. The swords at their sides rattled.     "Biggest collops I ever saw!" Cantiger heard.     "Full comely, she was, and well bisene, wist what I mean?"     Behind the Riders came a motley group of pilliers, who rode in silence. Behind these ...     "`Call that a hart?' I says. `More like a by-our-lady stag, you ask me. Still, with redcurrant jelly ...'"     "So quoth this wight, `Fair damosel, wouldst tarry?' and the damosel said ... Hey. Helloo!"     "Avaunt!" cried another of the Riders as the greyhounds flashed past Cantiger's hiding place, the lymers, or boar-hounds, hard on their heels, and the brachets, somewhat belatedly, gave tongue and streamed towards the embattled aurochs.     The wolf had already decided that pre-prepared foods had their merits after all and that this area was going down in the world fast. When next the aurochs tossed its head, therefore, she let go. She flew, twisting in the air, into the bushes by the side of the track. A few wise brachets peeled off to give chase. The rest followed the bigger dogs' lead and attached themselves to bits of aurochs.     But Cantiger was not watching the battle above him. His eyes were fixed upon the Rider who rode alone between the pilliers and the crossbowmen who brought up the rear on foot. He was not just big. In fact, it might be that he was little bigger than the other Riders, just as an eagle may be little bigger than a goose. He just gave an impression of confidence, ease and unassailability that would occasion awe and admiration in some but only terror and dislike in Cantiger.     The man wore no helm, and his legs were clad in gleaming leather rather than in hardware. His greying black hair also shone. It was slicked back and tied in a ponytail. His thick moustache was paler grey. He grinned a one-sided grin and he did not need to shout to be heard above the clatter of the men, the yelping of the hounds and the snorting of the ox. "Back," he ordered. The word rattled through the trees.     He held out a gauntleted hand. A huge lance appeared from nowhere, as it seemed. He grasped it, easily swung it down to the horizontal, fewtered it and laid it across his horse's neck.     He clicked his horse into a trot but, after a few paces, frowned. His hounds, when not flying off into or whimpering in the bushes, were fastened to various cuts of beef. One lymer even had the aurochs by the nose and was engaged in a solo tug-of-war. He could not see clear leather.     The Rider nodded. He held out the lance. A pillier was on hand to take it from him. The Rider dismounted. He drew his sword as he strode along the track. He was grinning again -- rather disgustingly, Cantiger thought.     The ox became aware of the man in the centre of the track ahead. It tired of the nose-tugging lymer and jerked its head hard to one side. The great grey dog found itself somersaulting, The ox snorted. The other dogs at its back and neck were mere irritations. It wanted the grinning man.     It surged forward, head down, trailing dogs.     By the time that it reached the Rider it was travelling at speed. The man stood absolutely still, his weight on one foot. He did not even lift his sword until the beast was upon him. Then things happened, but Cantiger was never sure what those things were. The man was suddenly somewhere else. The blade flashed. The ox stumbled and stopped. The man was somewhere altogether elsewhere again. The blade flashed, slicing downward this time.     The ox stood considering what had happened. It appeared confused, which was unsurprising, really.     Its head had already bounced on the track and rolled into a rut.     Blood spattered Cantiger's face.     He did not hear the aurochs say, "Aha!" before it crumpled, but he would swear that that was what it was thinking.     "One thing I can't stand," said the Rider, "it's a burger with attitude." Half a mile down the track, Princess Marina Lamaya stood at the topmost window of the tower, gazing out over the Forest of Loonis. Her drunk was packed. Her diplomas and her report were in her reticule. She shifted eagerly from foot to foot.     It was the end of term.     She was a tall and slender girl of some sixteen summers. She was no beauty, but she radiated health of the sort described usually, alas, inaccurately) as "rude".     Her brown hair, held back in a pearled net snood, was glossy as syrup, her skin fresh and unblemished. Her eyebrows swooped like twin rockets' trails above gin-clear eyes. Her shoulders were broad, but everything to southward tapered nicely and in proportion. She was unconventionally dressed in a corslet of softest beaten leather covered with a stiff leather cuirass, a broad studded black belt from which hung a dagger, black leather breeches and knee-length boots.     Again, it was the dogs, now spattered with mud and blood and happily panting, who first emerged from the umber of the trees. Marina gasped, "He's here ..." As the six Riders, spears aloft, rode into the glade and took up their stations on either side of the track, Marina jumped up and down and waved her handkerchief. "Hi, Sadok!" she called. "Hey, Driant, hi! How's the back?" The Rider gestured. Marina winced. "And the front?"     The pilliers formed up behind their masters. Then the forty men-at-arms emerged at the trot, tramped in step up the avenue of Riders and took up flanking positions. They kneeled, their crossbows raised to their shoulders.     "He's coming ..." murmured Marina. She clapped her hands in Girlish Glee. They still did Girlish Glee in Forms I and II back then. It was hard to forget.     Marina bethought herself of the old woman and the beautiful young girl in the room behind her. She glanced swiftly back at them. "Oh, Dame Iseult," she said sweetly, "and darling Garnish, I am sorry to be so excited. I really will miss you, and I'm so, so grateful to you both..."     "Nonsense, girl, nonsense," croaked Iseult of the White Hans (so called on account of a pallid young Hun whom she kept downstairs for unspecified purposes). "It's been a privilege to have you. We'll miss you terribly, of course, won't we, Garnish?"     "Well, I know I will," purred the girl in a voice that made tonsils tickle. "I'll never have another friend like you."     "Ah, you'll be able to visit," consoled the old woman. "Oh, and by the way, the White Hans is feeling poorly, but he asked me to wish you good luck. No, time moves on, my dear. You have work to do, and you've learned as much as I can teach you -- excluding the arcana, of course ..."     "Of course."     "I have never had a pupil like you. I am confident that you will make your mark on the world and be a credit to my academy. Your dear father should be very proud of you ..."     "Oh, thank you, darling Dame Iseult!" Marina turned back to the window. "Oh, look! It's him, it's ...! Oh, no, it's not. It's a damp, dirty villein carrying a big cow's head. What's he doing? Oy! You!" She leaned out. "Bog off before I turn you into a sentient mushroom!"     Bedraggled and bewildered, Cantiger looked up. He had been soaked in muddy water and blood, half licked to death by ravening dogs, then laughed at by some large men. Now a nice-looking woman was bellowing threats and abuse at him. It was extraordinary how history repeated itself. Daily, at least.     "Sorry. Are you Dame Iseult?" he called up. "I'm the new apprentice."     Marina did not hear him. "Daddeee!" she called. "My daddee!"     The Rider with the ponytail rode into the glade, once more smiling his lopsided smile. His right hand held a rope whose other end was bound around the hind legs of the gutted aurochs His horse pranced like a faithless firewalker. He waved up to his daughter. "My baby," he said proudly. He shook his head, incredulous and admiring. "My little baby girl ..." When Marina and her father had embraced at some length in the vestibule, punched one another and slapped one another on the back and shoulder and exchanged guffaws, Cantiger found history behaving like a pickled onion yet again. First, he became aware that his new mistress was not, after all, the limber young girl who had threatened him, nor the comely damosel who held her hand, but the scowling, stooping, squinting pale old woman in the black cloak. Then he was thrust forward with the still-bleeding aurochs's head. The old dame was all coquettish with the ponytailed Rider. She writhed. "For me, King Cobdragon? Oh, your savagery, you shouldn't!"     "Nothing, nothing. Thought it might look good over the fireplace. Or perhaps you'd like to play with it. I know how you girls are with brains and things."     "The eyes might be good for the lunar thaumatropic epidiroscope," suggested Marina.     "And we can always use freshly dead brain tissue in the gamma-wave storage batteries," said Garnish.     "Or in hotpot," said Iseult, a practical dame.     "There," said Cobdragon. "Knew you'd have uses for it. Fees reach you, I trust?"     "Yes, boss," said Iseult. "Gramercy."     "Keep the cart."     "Oh, Ruthlessness, gramercy indeed!" Iseult squirmed.     "No, no. You've looked after my girl very well. Rest of the beast is outside, if it's any use to you."     Cantiger was impressed. An aurochs, anatomized, salted, smoked and ported, represented a year's food for a large family.     Cantiger had been the victim of this sort of profligacy. He thought it wonderful.     "Right, you, villein," said Iseult. She leaned forward and glared at him. One of the glaring eyes was a jelly, the other a cloudy blancmange. "Are you really `Bright, punctual, talented, pig's trotter, liquamen, butter, agrimony two grains, dose dog, oh shit and learned'?"     Cantiger sighed. His mother's habit of writing letters on shopping lists had got him in trouble before now. "I try," he said.     "Oh, gawd. Right, off to the kitchen with you, and start chopping."     "Chop, chop, chop! Just like me!" bellowed Cobdragon amiably. The slap on Cantiger's back propelled him across the circular room. His knees hit a bench. His forehead hit the wall.     "Sorry," he said to the wall, just in case.     "Now," said Iseult to Cobdragon, "sit down and tell me what's been happening. Still no overlord, I hear? I do hope I can help ..."     "No. Realm's stood in great jeopardy long while, I'd say." Cobdragon pursed his lips and sat on an iron chair. "Every Rider that is mighty of men makes him strong, and many ween to be king."     "Fancy," said Iseult.     Cantiger shook his head, reeled a little, then pulled himself up on the bench, No one was paying the least attention to him, save Marina, who kicked him as he headed for the basement kitchen.     Already he felt quite at home There were people who did not like Cobdragon. Quite a lot of these -- the ones who had bumped into him and believed that it was "good to talk" -- tended to be dead.     There were others, however, who disliked him more or less as a matter of principle. They did not even need to know him personally. They did not like his habits which, if gregarious, were unsociable. Like most successful warlords, he just wasn't the sort of man that you asked around for a nice little chat over a fig roll.     Strangely, Cobdragon did not seem to worry much about such disapproval. He slept well at night, admittedly with the assistance of large quantifies of mead, and loved nothing better than a good joke with his chums.     He was very much at ease with himself, was Cobdragon.     "So, you naughty daddy," said Marina as she rode beside him towards their home. "What have you been up to?"     "Oh, you know, the usual." His eyes were permanently narrowed, permanently shifting this way and that as he rode. "Conquering, that sort of thing."     "Great. How big's the kingdom now?"     "Well, we've got all of Dumnium, Somnium and most of Withershire now. That chap Herminde yielded himself and one hundred knights to me."     "Oh, well done!"     "And then Clegis slew a couple of lordlings up in the Marches and won us two thousand acres, two hundred Riders - most of them useless, but ... and three nice castles. Rent of about seven hundred a year. I've put him in charge."     "It was time he had some lands of his own."     "Yea, and now he's got his warhammer technique sorted out he's pretty much Grade One. He should be able to hold the lands. I can't see any of the Premier crowd wanting them. It's rough territory."     "All the same, territory is territory," said Marina firmly. "Any losses?"     "Oh, nothing significant Bersules beat Cobbledick, but l went down there and rased off his head."     "Quite right. Got to show that you'll put up with no nonsense." Marina was smug. "You have done well, Daddy. Is ours the biggest demesne now?"     "I'm not sure." Cobdragon cocked his head to consider. "I think it should be. There's this young chap Lynch making a bit of a name for himself out east, but yea, I reckon we're number one. Now, if you were to marry this Lynch fellow ..." (Continues...) Copyright © 2000 Mark F. Parker. All rights reserved.

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