On a hillside near the Ancient Forest, not far from the Petrified Pools of Yan, a wounded man awakens from a dream of chaotic battle. He is weaponless, armourless, and lacking all memory. He recognizes nothing about him, and all he has for company is a smart-alec Raven and an inscrutable singing scabbard. So begins a brisk and vigorously inventive piece of fantasy, graced with a mordant wit, byzantine conspiracy, and vivid elements of classic folk-lore.
The nameless man, sensibly enough, takes a name, Soldier, and follows a chance-met hunter to the nearby city of Zamerkand, a xenophobic, bureaucracy-ridden entrepot ruled by a periodically insane Queen and her conniving Chancellor. In Zamerkand you can go to work for a market trader in Hands of Glory (as Soldier does) and rent sleeping space in the local sewers.
Good intentions don't get you very far however, and before he knows quite where he is (or who he is) Soldier finds himself on the way to the torture chamber, all set to make first-hand acquaintance (as Hunter informs us with jaunty menace) with "the red-hot anus pokers". He is saved from this fate by sudden marriage to the Queen's sister, who is as mad or madder than the Queen, already having disposed of two husbands, and disfigured to boot...
Bewildered, but with a certain charming naïveté, Soldier accepts the mixed hand that fate has dealt him. Aspiring to distinguish himself, he joins the local mercenary army, the Carthagans, who protect Zamerkand and dwell in great red tents (the Red Pavilions). In due course, he covers himself in blood and glory, only to discover the traditional reward for a job well done; another job. Queenly pique and court conspiracy dispatch him on a quest to the country of the Gods and Wizards, to find a cure for the Curse of Insanity that afflicts the royal family.
Underlying the surface forth of bizarre events is a darker counterpoint. The land about Zamerkand is tormented by unnatural weather and beasts, signs of the incipient death of the King Magus, the greatest Wizard of the world who hovers on the brink of eternity, and whose death will presage a struggle between good and evil Wizards to take his place...
The book is not without its flaws. Hunter can be a careless writer at times, being particularly prone to whipping her characters from evening to morning, or to the next day, in a 'just so!' manner that can irritate. And then, the mood of the book darkens steadily, though the humour never quite subsides, as Soldier grapples with evil creatures and people, his tormented love for his new wife, and his own fearsome suspicions about the atrocities that may lurk in his hidden past.
Regardless, the overall impression is positive. Hunter has created a world with a surreal and compelling air, reminiscent of some of Moorcock's work. The book avoids the stilted, faux-medieval, fantasy kingdom errors of so much of the current genre, and achieves something with a much bolder, fresher, more mythic feeling to it. Good work, and I'll look forward to the next instalment.
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© Simeon Shoul 16 March 2002