Elias Ashmole thought that he had discovered it. Oxford lawyer, courtier, soldier, astrologer, alchemist, historian, mystic, pragmatist, devotee of the new learning as well as the old; first gentleman freemason, founder of the first "public museum of curiosities" in England: Elias Ashmole, floreat 1617-1692.

The Maze was, is, and will be. When the magnablock exploded into infinity, the Maze was formed. "There was light"-- and the light shone upon the Maze. Coeval and coexistent, neither of the same substance nor the same essence; having the attributes, the incidents, the accidents of neither terrene nor contraterrene matter, the Maze is both immanent and transcendent of both. It traverses space, it transects time. Ancient of years, the worlds form around it...

The nearest and quickest way is not ever the best. There is a door by which one can enter the treasure house of Croesus-- but although it is only a hundred steps from door to treasure, fifty of these steps pass through the house of Daniel Dickensheet in Mincemeat Lane in the year of the Plague and on the door of that house is painted a cross, and the words, Lord Have Mercy on Us.

Thus begins Masters of the Maze, possibly the best of Avram Davidson's forays into the genre of science fiction. The novel concerns Nathaniel Gordon, a hack writer who specializes in hilariously bad "true-life" adventures for 1960s newstand trash. He writes them, swears to their authenticity, and sells them, always under a pseudonym. He has sold so many that he's started reusing pseudonyms, "so that poor Pierce Tarravel, to name but one, had lost wives to fates worse than death on three different continents"(12). Gordon finds his dubious life interrupted by Joseph Bellamy, wealthy member of the quasi-masonic Esquires of the Sword, an antiente order which in fact fronts a very real and very dangerous secret; they guard an entrance to the Maze, a tangle of flaws in spacetime which allow one access to an assortment of worlds and eras.

The various guardians in different times and places face a few problems. The extremist Teutonic Knights Lancers Elu of Livonia have long coveted the entrance guarded by the Esquires, and members John Horn and Major Nick Flint intend to claim it, as a means to their own political ends. Elsewhere, the Chulpex, a sentient race of insectoids, see the Maze as a means to find new breeding grounds to infest. That their target worlds are already inhabited represents a minor obstacle to overcome. Meanwhile, Bellamy requires a successor, and has selected Nate Gordon for the job. Gordon, of course, has not a clue regarding matters extra-terrestrial and other-dimensional.

The various plots make for some very strange bedfellows. In addition to the Chulpex, a believably-realized patriarchal hive-specie, we also encounter the Red Fish People, a sensual race from some parallel world more typical of Davidson's fantasy writing.

Davidson deserves credit for demonstrating more imagination in fewer than 200 pages than many SF/fantasy writers manage in entire, overblown series of novels. We first learn of the customs of the Red Fish People, for example, when the very alien Chulpex teach other Chulpex about them. A Chulpex Sire attempts to make a joke, and bombs in the very specific way that a dominant male sentient hive-insect likely would. The racists Horn and Flint have to strike a bargain with aliens. Historical figures and esoteric detail abound, as Gordon searches for the legendary Masters of the Maze, and a solution to the threats posed by the maze of conspiracy in which he has become entangled.

Ray Bradbury has compared the experience of reading this labyrinthine novel to entering thick fog and having to orient oneself. Forty years after it first appeared, Masters of the Maze still makes that stumbling through the pall worthwhile.

Avram Davidson. Masters of the Maze (1965). Berkeley Heights: Wildside Press, 2000.

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