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The Orokon
Volume One The Harlequin's Dance
Volume Two The King and Queen of Swords
Volume Three (forthcoming)Sultan of the Moon and Stars
Volume Four (forthcoming)Sisterhood of the Blue Storm
Volume Five (forthcoming)Untitled
Tom Arden
Victor Gollancz


Kevin Jenkins
The Harlequin's Dance

Kevin Jenkins
The King and Queen of Swords
Tom Arden
Tom Arden was born in 1961 and grew up in Mount Gambier, a small town in Australia. He wrote his first novel, Moon Escape, when he was seven years old -- a tale of lunar explorers kidnapped by evil aliens. He has been in bands and worked as a disc jockey on a public radio station. Studying English at the University of Adelaide, he graduated with First Class Honours in English. Later he completed a PhD thesis on Clarissa, the epic tale by the 18th-century novelist Samuel Richardson. In 1990, Tom moved to the UK and for some years was a university lecturer in Northern Ireland. He now lives in Brighton.

Tom Arden Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Neil Walsh

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Tom Arden studied and lectured on 18th century English literature. And it shows. I don't mean this in any derogatory way. On the contrary, having studied English literature myself, I have developed a healthy appreciation for the early English novel. What I mean is that Arden's influences are so widespread that I suspect the result may not be to everyone's taste. In order to fully appreciate Arden's Orokon, one would probably have to be a fan of quest fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien, Eddings and Brooks, as well as a fan of 18th and 19th century satires and adventure romance novels in the tradition of Defoe, Richardson, Swift, Austen, the Brontës, and Dickens.

If that doesn't tell you what it's like, then I suppose Mervyn Peake's Ghormenghast trilogy (or at least the early part of it) is probably as close a comparison as you could find to Arden's Orokon. It's grim. It's witty. It's certainly not a light read.

The first book, The Harlequin's Dance, is largely slow-moving, at least in terms of action. The hero is a young boy, crippled from birth, who lives a lonely and relatively uneventful life in a more or less abandoned castle on the outskirts of the civilized world. The heroine is a young girl, half-wild, who lives in a cave in the woods with her blind old father. Hardly the characters you might expect to prevail in a quest fantasy. But then, Jem, the crippled boy, doesn't even realize he has a quest to perform until very near the end of the book. And it is only in the final pages of the first volume that he sets out.

However, the story is so cleverly written, and the characters are so engaging/enraging, that there is no perceived lack. When Jem's Aunt Umbecca spends most of a chapter preparing for a ball, don't be tempted to skip ahead to the next sword-fight because, well, there is no sword-fight coming, and because Umbecca's preparations are so tremendously amusing -- particularly in view of the fact that she's a grotesquely fat woman well past her prime almost literally seeing herself as a tender young virgin making her first appearance. But don't let the lack of sword-play deter you, since the action that does crop up will have your heart pounding, even if it's only Jem's feeble efforts to escape the clutches (alas, without his crutches) of the evil Doctor Waxwell.

The second volume, The King and Queen of Swords, sees Jem somewhat lost on his way, having apparently been sidetracked from his quest. It also sees Cata, the wild girl, brainwashed into a proper young society girl. Both situations are terrifically amusing, and both young people weave in and out of each other's paths without actually coming together again.

Also in the second volume, there is a little more adventure in the more traditional sense. Jem gets into his first duel (although it goes rather badly); meets up with some highwaymen (although he hides in the woods while they rob the coach); and finds himself crossing enemy lines in disguise on the eve of a great battle (although he is recognized as an imposter and is forced to flee for his life). But despite these rather stumbling efforts, we never doubt that Jem has the soul of a hero.

Cata meanwhile, is battling ill-intentioned suitors, jealous rivals, and ambitious adopted relations. And she's beginning to wonder how the heck she ended up in such a ridiculous situation in the first place.

But if the heroes are less than ideal candidates for heroism, the villains, at least, are utterly despicable. Doctor Waxwell's righteous fanatacisim drives him to deeds of inhuman cruelty. And the neighbourhood bully, Polty, grows from a boy animal-torturer to an adult rapist and murderer with no sense of conscience whatsoever.

The cast, however, is quite large. And some of my favourites are the more minor characters, like Morven and Crum, two hapless recruits -- a pompous scholar and a simple farmer, respectively -- who are taken from the worlds they know and thrust into uniforms in the far reaches of the Kingdom to fight for a cause neither believes in. Their conversations often had me laughing out loud.

By the second book, Arden has really found his stride. Where The Harlequin's Dance seems to be at times almost tentatively setting the stage, The King and Queen of Swords is more boldly written, confidently advancing the story and playing with it at the same time. I'm looking forward to the next.

Sultan of the Moon and Stars: Third Book of The Orokon is due for UK release in October 1999. There are five books planned for the series, just as there are five gods in Arden's world, and five magical crystals which must be found by Jem and returned to the circle of the Orokon before the next era of the world can be ushered in. But throughout the course of Jem's quest, the great demon (who goes by several names) and his evil minions are seeking to wrest control of the crystals from this fated (or ill-fated?) path.

All in all, there's a lot going on in this series, even if very little of it thus far has involved swashbuckling feats of derring-do. It's vastly entertaining on several levels, and will be appreciated by any fan of both classic fantasy and classic literature -- and I think there are more than a few of us out there.

Copyright © 1999 by Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh is the Reviews Editor for the SF Site. He lives in contentment, surrounded by books, in Ottawa, Canada.


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