This is the first in a four-volume series starring Bronwyn, the ousted princess of Tamlaght, written by an author who is as well known (if anything, better known) in the sf/fantasy world for his artwork, especially his space artwork -- although he is a much more versatile artist than that remark might suggest. He was also the author, with Frederick C. Durant III, of the enormous 2001 book The Art of Chesley Bonestell (reviewed elsewhere on this site), so his auctorial credentials are well established.
(All four volumes -- the remaining three are to be published between now and June 2002 -- are being made available also on cassette and CD as sound dramatizations. See the Timberwolf site for details of these versions.)
Tamlaght is a kingdom in a fantasyland whose technology is primarily medieval but with some more modern -- up to about the 1950s -- thrown in. The old king having died, the elder of his two children, the halfwit Prince Ferenc, is set to inherit. However, Ferenc is completely under the thumb of the scheming Lord (Payne) Roelt, whose sole desire is to screw the kingdom for his personal coffers. Ferenc's younger sister Bronwyn, next in line for the throne, discovers some letters that damningly reveal Roelt's plots and the extent of his domination of Ferenc. Before she can move to take these before the Council of Barons, with the intent of having Roelt banished (or worse) and Ferenc disqualified from succeeding to the throne, there is a price on her head and she is on the run.
Somewhat snotty by temperament, she would probably last about five minutes among the common scum of the streets of Blavek, Tamlaght's capital, were it not for the intervention of the huge, grotesque, none-too-bright sarcophagus-maker Thud Mollockle. With the help of the ever-loyal Thud and various other companions -- notably a gypsy called Janos Plodsku and later an iron-thewed human-reared-as-a-Kobold called Gyven -- she is first spirited away from Blavek and then conveyed secretly around the country, having divers adventures.
This is a highly entertaining romp. At its end, all is well set for the next volume of the tetralogy, although the conclusion of this volume is by no means unsatisfying. The tale as a whole is one that Robert Jordan might well have told at five times the length and with only one-fifth of the fun and wit. After some orotundity that should have been edited out during the first thirty or fifty pages, the writing settles down to an engaging ease. The characters of Bronwyn, exasperatingly status-conscious though she is, and perhaps more especially of Thud Mollockle, who proves to be a Kobold changeling (the counterpart of Gyven, a human baby taken in place of a Kobold substitute), are appealing and interesting.
Miller's own excellent cover artwork depicting Bronwyn gives the clue to her interest as a fantasy heroine. This is far from the usual buxom blonde maiden who would seem more at home on a chocolate box. Instead we're presented with a real-seeming face, and this sense of reality is carried over into the written character. A disenfranchised princess with an attitude problem might seem something of a cliché in high fantasy, but in Bronwyn the bloody-mindedness comes across as an integral part of her personality, rather than, as in most such fantasy protagonists, a gloss laid over an empty shell -- a means of disguising the fact that the standard Princess Cliché has no personality whatsoever, being designed to be identified with by female readers as their ideal selves and to be the target of the silent lusts of adolescent male readers. Bronwyn, by contrast, is someone you might or might not like if you actually met her, which makes her infinitely more appealing as a fictional character.
The only trouble with this romp, enjoyable though it is, is that there's nothing more to it. It is obvious that Miller is perfectly capable as a writer of giving the text that extra something which defines great romps from merely good ones. There are grins and gasping adventures a-plenty here, but one wishes either that the book had some sort of a subtextual interest or at least some striking conceptual originality -- preferably, of course, both. As it is, the book doesn't leave the reader with any lingering food for thought: it's merely temporal entertainment, a diversion for a few hours.
But as that -- simply as entertainment -- Palaces & Prisons scores highly, which is more than can be said of many of its direct rivals.
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© John Grant 9 March 2002