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Dead Reign
T.A. Pratt
Bantam Spectra, 323 pages

Dead Reign
T.A. Pratt
T.A. Pratt lives in Oakland, California with partner H.L. Shaw, and works as a senior editor for a trade publishing magazine.

T.A. Pratt Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Marla Mason Website
SF Site Review: Poison Sleep
SF Site Review: Poison Sleep
SF Site Review: Blood Engines
SF Site Review: Poison Sleep
SF Site Review: Blood Engines
SF Site Review: Blood Engines

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nathan Brazil

'"You take care now." She walked away, leaving Mr. Death to gather up his fingers.'
Dead Reign is the third Marla Mason adventure, and the book that marks the character's ascension to top dog, or perhaps that should be dominant bitch, among the female leads in fantasy fiction. What makes this series -- this character -- stand out is a subtle mixture of ingenuity, originality and acerbic humour. The latter being genuinely funny, as opposed to the juvenile tripe pumped out by authors whose editors mistake puerility for comedy. Most of Marla's competition in this area of fiction, some of whom are long past retirement, come across as testosterone poisoned Palin clones, with supernatural powers. Women swearing and shooting and stomping around in a man's world, and in the process losing much of what would otherwise make them interesting. T.A. Pratt understands this failure, and even though his character is every bit as hard as the others when required, we never lose sight of the fact that she is a woman, with all the qualities of the gender. It's a tricky balancing act, but one at which the author is becoming increasingly adept.

The story begins with a cranky old necromancer named Ayers, recently released from the Blackwing Institute for insane sorcerers, going back to his old ways. Ayers is grave robbing, against the orders of Marla Mason. When things don't work out the way that Ayers wants, he uses blackmail against one of Felport's leading sorcerers, to obtain a mummy. No former resident of Egypt, the body is purported to be the remains of Abraham Lincoln's assassin. Before too long, Ayers has accidentally attracted the attention of the Walking Death, a character who claims to be the new ruler of the underworld. Death is interested in retrieving his terrible sword, which was lost many years ago in a game of chance.

We soon discover that this weapon is now in the form of Marla Mason's dagger of office, reduced in size and potency, on account of mortals not being suited to wielding the weapons of gods. Something which is perhaps a veiled swipe at weapons of mass destruction. Naturally, Marla is not keen to give up her prize possession. Indeed, she cannot do so, unless it is to her successor as Chief Sorcerer of Felport. After a brief and bloody fight, the Walking Death realises that he cannot simply take the weapon. Death's solution is to cast Marla -- and by magical association, her new valet, Pelham -- out of Felport. This done, Death takes control of the city, and is determined to remain there until Marla wants to give up. This is where the book really takes off, with Marla unable to enter Felport, and the Walking Death coming to terms with necessary bureaucracy, plus the pain and pleasures of existence in a human body.

Meanwhile, Rondeau is doing his best to rally the resistance, and mount a hit and run campaign against the new ruler of the city. Death, of course, cannot be killed, but then, neither can Rondeau. Although, the latter isn't keen to lose his current body. While this is going on, Marla is unable even to communicate properly with her allies, and so seeks help elsewhere. True to character she quickly settles upon a bold plan. If Death is in control of her city, she will take advantage of his absence, and stage a one-woman, plus valet, invasion of the Underworld.

All of the above sounds good, and is, but not without a few negatives. There is a rather badly telegraphed scene in the role played by the animated corpse of Lincoln's assassin. It would've been so much more effective, if other characters had vaguely recognised him, and only found out his true identity at the critical moment. As for Marla's invasion of the Underworld, it works, but only because of a quirky end twist. Marla enters her personal Underworld, but even taking that into account, I felt the place seemed sparsely populated, and rather poorly defended the closer Marla came to where she was headed. Another fifty pages would've given the author the room to develop this plot element to its full potential. As with the previous novel in this series, there is a tremendous new character in the form of Marla's valet, Pelham. Rather disappointingly, he seems destined to be shuffled sideways. However, the good outweighs the bad by a considerable margin. Dark Reign is a lightning-paced tale, never less than entertaining, and includes satisfying chunks of character and world development. The Marlaverse continues to expand.

Copyright © 2008 Nathan Brazil

Nathan Brazil
If Nathan Brazil were dyslexic, he'd be the dog of the Well world. In reality, he's an English bloke who lives on an island, reading, writing and throwing chips to the seagulls. Drop by his web site at www.inkdigital.org.


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