(Bantam Spectra, $5.99, 419 pages, mass market paperback, October
Reading a debut novel can be a lot like eating a jelly bean blindfolded.
Sometimes you pick a familiar flavour, Confidence Game? Naturally,
it's not so simple. This is a mix of all three -- though thankfully
very little is bad.
you pick a nasty one, and sometimes you are introduced to the new and
delicious. So which did I pick when I read
The general story follows Elzith Kar, a superspy born with an unusual
magical gift. She works for the Judges and their minions in the politically
tumultuous land of Dabion. After a dangerous mission that leaves her
mentally and physically scarred, she takes refuge with Tod Redtanner,
an honest bookbinder with a naïve sense of relationships.
Elzith lives in a world of deceit, intrigue, and corruption, while Tod's
world is simple, quiet, and straightforward. So what happens when these
two worlds smash into each other? Love and pain, of course! Plus a fun
time for the reader (I suspect studies would show avid readers to be
among the most sadistic people).
So let's talk about jelly bean number one -- the familiar. Well, this
is a fantasy novel that features some magic (albeit hidden by a repressive
government), various cultures and landscapes (laid out with the aid
of the requisite cartographic contribution in the front pages), and
a multitude of characters. Also, though not labelled as the first book
in a trilogy, it is the first book of more to come in this world.
Which brings me to the second jelly bean -- the nasty. Too often, Welch
departs from the story to describe cultures and governments and such
that have little to do with the story itself. I suspect, in other novels
to come, these places and such may play a bigger role. If so, fine --
but save it for those novels. These meanderings did little more than
annoy me. Some readers might enjoy such tangents (I love reading Norman
Mailer's works, which tend to be a linking of tangents), but in this
case I found the material suffered for it.
Likewise, mimicking many speculative fiction stories, Confidence
Game bounces between numerous character viewpoints. This, too, can
be very effective, but it utterly fails here. The story is about Elzith
and Tod. They hold the only two viewpoints we need. They are the interesting
characters with the interesting relationship. It's their book, but Welch
robs them of the spotlight for no apparent reason. This lack of focus
is the one major drawback in an otherwise strong novel. I often hear
that editors have less and less time to actually edit, but here is a
case where finding the time to offer such suggestions could have made
the novel (and its author) shine. Instead, we are left with shimmers
of good things to come and a decent, though limited, story.
So, what's the last jelly bean all about? It's about Elzith and Tod.
Their relationship (the greatest strength in this novel) is a central
focus for the story. While this is a novel of subterfuge, it is also
a love story, and one that works charmingly well. Welch proves that
depth of character does not have to be sacrificed to the mighty plot,
and nor does plot have to weaken at the first sign of characterization.
These are inclusive elements, not exclusive. They support each other
when handled properly, and, in the case of Confidence Game, they
frame the entire novel. Without Elzith and Tod, the plot would crumble.
Without the double-dealing plot, Elzith and Tod could not happen. If
nothing else, Confidence Game is a lesson in writing cohesion.
As I swallow this new jelly bean, it seems to satisfy. If Welch can
conquer her weaknesses and capitalize more upon her strengths, if she
can learn to focus her stories, then I suspect we are witnessing the
birth of a major fantasy writer. To summarize, I can cheerfully give
this author the best comment a reviewer has to offer -- I want to read
her next book.