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Leopard Lord
Alanna Morland
Ace Books, 260 pages

Leopard Lord
Alanna Morland
Leopard Lord is Alanna Morland's first novel.

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A review by Victoria Strauss

Were-leopards, dueling deities, and true love meet in this romantic fantasy adventure from debut author Alanna Morland.

Varian is the heir to Leopard's Gard, a barony whose mountainous lands form a barrier between the populous countries of the south and the northern wastelands controlled by an evil, nameless god. When he turns sixteen, Varian discovers two terrible secrets. His father, a shapeshifter capable of taking the form of a giant ice-leopard, serves the Nameless God. Worse, he has promised that Varian, who shares his father's shapeshifting abilities, will serve the God also.

Varian is dedicated against his will, and over the next few years the Nameless God's evil geas compels him to take leopard form and hunt the people he should be ruling and protecting. When his father dies at last and he becomes lord of Leopard's Gard, Varian strikes a bargain. In exchange for his own freedom and the freedom of his lands, he will marry, and give his virgin wife to the God as a gift. The life of one woman, he reasons, is a small price to pay to save so many others. The Nameless God doesn't want just any woman, however, but one woman in particular: the beautiful and spirited Cathlin, who is dedicated to the God's sister and deadly rival, Byela. Varian marries Cathlin, and almost at once, to his horror, finds himself falling in love with her. He is faced with a terrible choice: to betray his beloved or renege on his bargain and face the vengeance of the Nameless God.

Leopard Lord has a lot going for it. Morland has a pleasant prose style; her characters are appealing, her setting is interesting, and she has plotted out a suspenseful story. Unfortunately, there isn't quite enough of any of these elements. About the last thing you usually want to say about a high fantasy tale is that it needs more length, but Leopard Lord would have profited from at least another hundred pages of character and story amplification. As it is, the book often reads like a long synopsis rather than a completed novel. Culture and history are only sketchily explained. Crucial character reactions are dealt with in a few lines, and large chunks of story are disposed of with equal speed. Conversely, a good deal of space is devoted to elements that, though interesting, are fairly peripheral to the plot. More than a chapter is spent on issues of slavery, for instance, while the climactic confrontation between Varian and the Nameless God is wrapped up in a bit over six pages. And, call me picky, but when you've built up romantic and sexual tension over more than 200 pages, you owe your readers a bit more resolution than Morland provides.

Some of this, no doubt, stems from the inexperience of a first-time novelist (though I can't help wondering whether more editorial intervention would have helped). Morland is a capable enough writer to make Leopard Lord a diverting book despite its many flaws. If she's able to more fully flesh out her story next time around, it should be a very good read indeed.

Copyright © 1999 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Arm of the Stone, is currently available from Avon Eos. For an excerpt, visit her website.

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