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Our protagonist is Matthew Mantrell, Ordinary Graduate Student, English major and general intellectual, working on his doctorate during The Present Day (presumably The Eighties, as that's when the first book was published). During his researches he comes across a piece of parchment covered in a language unknown to man. It turns out to be a Summon Everyman Hero spell that whisks him to "Merovence," the France of an Alternate History Europe still in The High Middle Ages. Once there, he makes a number of discoveries.
- Functional Magic exists, is controlled by rhymed verse, and co-exists with normal physics. Matthew, having a good six hundred years' extra knowledge to draw upon in both fields, is enormously powerful by the standards of the day.
- God and Satan exist, bringing with them Black and White Morality and the necessity of picking a side. Both forces offer power--evil in the form of Deals with Devils, good in the form of saints--and one must be sure to stay on the good side of your moral compass in order to avoid defeat both in the afterlife and here. (Morality is Christian-flavored, which is appropriate for medieval Europe but may result in Values Dissonance to some readers.)
- Saint Moncaire, patron of Merovence, brought Matthew here to restore the Balance of Good and Evil. All the other nations of Europe--Ibile, Allustria, Latruria, etc--have fallen under the reign of evil men, and a usurper, Astaulf, now threatens the throne of Merovence, aided by his Evil Chancellor Malingo. Matthew's job is to find Princess Alisande and help her reclaim her throne, thus preventing all of Europe from falling to the clutches of evil.
The series is relatively obscure--and, if truth be told, deservedly so. Books are a Cliché Storm: Matthew is set a task involving setting to rights another European country. He collects a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits as he travels, often supplementing them with Public Domain Characters created through Summon Magic; most of them fade back into obscurity, though two from the first book, the Black Knight, Sir Guy de Toutarien, and the dragon Stegoman, make repeat appearances. Matthew makes more study into the fabric of magic and Stasheff gets to soapbox about morality and virtue, whether in a Christian context or no. Main characters are flat, with secondaries having more interesting moments. So on.
The real reason tropers will want to check it out anyhow is that it is decidedly, deliberately, unabashedly Troperiffic. The Theory of Narrative Causality is in full force, and characters are Genre Savvy enough to actively invoke tropes if they stand to benefit from them (in the first book alone Princess Alisande calls upon "Underdogs Never Lose" and "The Good Guys Always Win"). The result is a Post Modern series in the trappings of an Historical Fantasy (complete with Ye Olde Butchered English, even though technically they are speaking French), a flood of classic poetry, and a series of Lampshade Hangings which can only be described as loving.
A not-especially-complete wiki on the series can be found at the author's website.
Tropes displayed in this series include
- Absurdly Sharp Blade: Matthew conjures up a sword Sharpened to a Single Atom.
- Acrophobic Bird: Stegoman, the dragon, who is afraid of heights.
- Action Girl: Alisande for starters; more later.
- Adipose Rex
- A Day in the Limelight: After Matthew disappears from our world, his friend Saul Bremener tries to figure out where he went. He travels to Merovence just in time to be the star of the third book, and becomes the series' only first-person narrator.
- Bare-Fisted Monk: Saul Bremener
- Black Knight: non-villainous example in Sir Guy
- Distracted by the Sexy: a lot of female characters try this at different times.
- Evil Chancellor
- Fantastic Racism
- Fish Out of Temporal Water: Matthew. It's in his favor, though, and other characters are willing to overlook his 20th-century eccentricities for the sake of his brilliant wizardry.
- Guardian Angel: Saul summons one, though, as an agnostic, he can't fully accept its existence.
- Istanbul Not Constantinople: many names are traceable to influences in our history. Merovence, for instance, takes its name from the same dynasty of French kings that The Merovingian is named after.
- Literal Genie
- Mix-and-Match Critters: Matthew meets a "dracogriff" during the second book. The necessary Hot Skitty-On-Wailord Action is Deconstructed.
- One of Us: Matthew Mantrell definitely is, and by extension Stasheff as well.
- The Promise: in the second book, The Oathbound Wizard, Matthew rashly swears to conquer the neighboring kingdom of Ibile, as his common birth is preventing him from marrying Alisande. The universe holds you to your promises.
- Proud Warrior Race Guy: Stegoman.
- Public Domain Character: Robin Hood and his Merry Men, Don Quixote, Puck, Maxwell's demon and more.
- Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Once an Episode.
- Reality Warper: any wizard would count, but special mention goes to Frisson, a genius-savant who comes up with brilliant poetry as easily as breathing... which, given the setting's Functional Magic, can go Off the Rails real fast.
- Rescue Romance
- Rightful King Returns: subverted. There's stories of a descendent of Emperor Hardishane, a King in the Mountain who will return to Set Right What Once Went Wrong if evil manages to overwhelm all of Europe. All Myths Are True, and such a man does exist, but he's striving with all his might to prevent his own crowning, as it can only take place After the End. (It's Sir Guy.)
- Rousseau Was Right
- Royals Who Actually Do Something: all over the place. Whether villainous or virtuous, there's one thing to be said for the royals of this alternate Europe: they work for their crowns.
- True Neutral: Invoked Trope. Saul is a major ally for the good guys and a hero in his own right, but he refuses to accept their religion or belief system in favor of systematically studying how magic really works in this setting, and makes sure to commit a "technical sin" (like eating meat on Friday) for every good deed he does.
- Succession Crisis: not only is this how some evil rulers take charge, but there's a genuine one at the end of the second book. Of the two people competing for their grandfather's throne, one is the eldest son's daughter, the other the younger son's son. (Solved when the lady marries a third party, removing herself from the line of succession.)
- Summon Everyman Hero
- Suddenly-Suitable Suitor
- Talking Is a Free Action: Zigzagged. In some battle situations, Matthew snaps out rhymed couplets to cast his spells. In another, he recites much of Byron's "She walks in beauty, like the night."
- Trapped in Another World
- The Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer: Matthew and Saul. (Later, Matt brings his parents over as well. They are just as proficient at magic as he is.)
- Unreliable Expositor: A few books in it's revealed that the initial idea of this world operating entirely on Christian theology with Satan and the Saints powering all magic is a local misconception, and in fact All Myths Are True. Although the version of Catholicism practiced in the Europe equivalent is the "correct" religion, Islam is considered close enough and magic works fine even for cultures with no real religious equivalent to the Christian god or devil.
- Waking the Sleeping Giant
- Wicked Cultured: Fadecourt the cyclops.
- Year Inside, Hour Outside: at one point, Matthew returns to "our" dimension after five years in Merovence, to discover that it's been three days since he left.