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Sultan of the Moon and Stars:
Third Book of The Orokon

Tom Arden
Victor Gollancz, 518 pages

Kevin Jenkins
Sultan of the Moon and Stars
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. 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
SF Site Review: The Harlequin's Dance / The King and Queen of Swords

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Neil Walsh

It's been a year since I read the first two volumes of The Orokon, but the story hasn't faded in my memory. In fact, several scenes and images kept coming back to me over the past year and I had been very much looking forward to Sultan of the Moon and Stars. I am happy to report that I have not been disappointed.

The earlier part of the story hasn't faded in my mind, but my recollection of it may have become somewhat altered. I just now went back to re-read my review of the first two books, The Harlequin's Dance and The King and Queen of Swords (now available in mass market paperback), and I was rather surprised to see that I had described the series as if it were dense reading. Maybe large sections of the first volume seemed to be providing an unusually languid beginning to an epic of high fantasy, but I clearly recall the ribald humour and the clever interweaving of literary styles that so amused and delighted me. Looking back on it now, I remember how much I enjoyed reading those first two volumes. I don't recall any hard slogging at all. And there's certainly nothing dense about Sultan of the Moon and Stars; it's a fun, well-paced story, cleverly told.

The 1001 Arabian Nights seems to be the main inspiration for this chapter of The Orokon. Driven by his quest to the exotic, desert lands of Unang Lia, Jem finds himself in a world of magic and mystery. There he must seek the crystal of Theron, god of fire -- third of the five magical crystals of the Orokon. But Jem is separated from his friend Raj (bearer of one of the crystals), who winds up running with a gang of young thieves. The villainous and demon-possessed Polty is also back, making trouble for everyone (including himself, and the demon who 'rules' him). Cata, meanwhile, having escaped the stifled world of finishing school, is travelling with Bob Scarlet and his band of rebels/highwaymen in her attempt to catch up with Jem. She soon finds herself in the Caliph's palace, where she befriends his daughter, the Shimmering Princess, who is 'Shimmering' because she's not physically there -- only a shadow of her self remains (due to a curse many years ago involving a disgruntled soothsayer and a magic lamp). This, however, is not common knowledge, and certainly the Sultan will be most displeased when he discovers that his son is engaged to be married to a shadow! But really, there's too much to explain. It would be like trying to summarize for you what the Arabian Nights is all about -- I could tell you in 25 words or less, but it wouldn't begin to give you a fair sense of the richness of the whole work.

A great deal of Sultan of the Moon and Stars emulates the style of the Arabian Nights -- far more than just the setting and the tales revolving around prophecy and magic, flying carpets, genies, harems of beautiful women, eunuchs, clever thieves, illusory palaces, real palaces, cobras, curses, sexual innuendo and explicit sex (although less of these last two items than in the original tales of Shahrazad). In addition to all of that, Arden also captures the flavour of the Arabian Nights through the stories within stories, the themes repeated within different tales, and the recurrence of characters from one story in a tale told much later in the whole narrative. It's all done with wit and style, making it a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Arden is a writer who clearly enjoys playing with language and who obviously appreciates the literature of various periods, as demonstrated already in the first two books. He is also emerging as a master of melodrama, although that may be largely a result of his choice of the literary genres and periods he's playing with. He pays homage to these different styles at the same time that he parodies them, with the result that as a reader I sometimes feel as if he's leading me along by the nose just to see how far I'll go -- or am I following just to see how far he'll go? No matter, though, since it's an enjoyable trip -- even when he does push it quite far.

In this latest volume, I found myself missing Morven & Crum (bit players in the earlier books) and Aunt Umbecca (earlier a major player), who were all alluded to but not directly encountered in this latest installment. Nirry and Wiggler, however, are back for brief cameos. There are hints that many of these charmingly ridiculous lesser players have not yet made their final exit.

I didn't find this book to be quite as humorous as his earlier two, although there were a few moments that made me crack a smile. Sometimes the humour is a bit crass (as is much of the humour in the Arabian Nights), so if you get into the spirit of it, maybe you'd be likely to laugh more. But when things get gruesome, Arden doesn't hold back too much. Nevertheless, I would say that Sultan of the Moon and Stars is a fairly light reading fantasy. And if that's a complete reversal of my earlier position on the series, either I was just plain wrong before, or it's simply a tribute to Arden's ability to play with his readers, radically changing his writing style while maintaining a firm grip on the overall storyline.

Copyright © 2000 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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