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Tales of the King's Blades
Gilded Chain
Lord of the Fire Lands
Sky of Swords
Dave Duncan
HarperCollins/EOS, 352, 352 and 358 pages

The Gilded Chain
Lord of the Fire Lands
Sky of Swords
Dave Duncan
Dave Duncan is a former geologist and recipient of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Achievement Award. His previous works include two four-volume sagas, A Man of His Word and A Handful of Men. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.

Dave Duncan Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Gilded Chain
SF Site Review: Future Indefinite
SF Site Review: The Great Game

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

Sky of Swords concludes Duncan's three separate yet inextricably connected Tales of the King's Blades. While each book -- Gilded Chain, Lord of the Fire Lands, and Sky of Swords -- has been written in the guise of a stand-alone and can, I suppose, be read as such, Duncan's compositional accomplishments cannot be fully appreciated, nor inconsistencies existing within the parallel stories understood, without a reading of the entire series.

The author has approached his three tales, as a reviewer elsewhere has aptly noted, in a "Rashomon-style." Each book has been told from a different perspective, and early on into the second book, the reader quickly comes to realize that the overall tale being told, while sharing certain episodes and characters in common, nonetheless is coming to a very different conclusion. Characters appear out of context to preceding novels, and the ending of Lord of the Fire Lands is in complete contradiction to that of Gilded Chain. Confusion? Without question, but as a device hopefully spurring the reader on.

As in Kurosawa's masterpiece, each book is told from the different point of view of three separate characters whose lives touch and interface each other, experiencing certain identical events in common but from varying and conflicting vantage points. In the first book, Gilded Chain, the reader follows the rather rambling -- both locational and temporal -- adventures of Durendal, the finest swordsman in the kingdom of Chivial, and, in many ways, despite his developed characterization, indistinguishable from any number of other larger-than-life characters performing derring-do populating the realms of fantasy. Narratively bouncing around in temporal and chronological fits and starts -- the long sojourn to Samarinda seeming particularly diverting despite its setup for events to follow -- this book, to my mind, regardless of the author's abilities at storytelling, is the weakest and least memorable of the outing, surprisingly, as trilogies often go, lacking the strength of characterization and plotting that is to follow.

In Lord of the Fire Lands, Duncan shifts his narrative to a different character as well as a storyline that largely takes place in another realm, the volcanic, archipelagic kingdom of Baelmark. The central figure here is Radgar Æleding, potential heir to the island crown, and, at the start of this tale, a refugee hiding in disguise within the Blades' school of Ironhall. His identity soon revealed, he flees Chivial and the machinations planned for him by King Ambrose and, accompanied by his friend, Wasp, a Blade now bound to him through the schemes of the King, returns to his homeland to investigate the killing of his father and confront the murderers. Full of intrigue and a mystery to be unraveled, this novel is much more linear in approach than the preceding book, and in many ways appears more focused in terms of the tale being told. Shifting in perspective between Radgar and Wasp, there is a richness of background, story, setting and development of magic that is, by comparison, lacking in the first tale, and the cast of characters here seem much more individual, varied and fully realized. While some of the gratuitous swordplay of the earlier novel has been dispensed with, and Radgar is not quite so enlarged a heroic figure as Durendal, there is plenty of action to assuage the fanciers of hack and slash fantasy, but with a richness and sensitivity of treatment and dimension for those seeking out more than bloated heroism or action-bound drama. And the ending, especially after reading the first novel, is bound to grab your attention.

The concluding novel, Sky of Swords, after the multiple points of view of the previous story, turns to the singular vantage of King Ambrose's daughter early into the novel, picking up where Lord of the Fire Lands left off. Up until now, Princess Malinda has been a peripheral figure, and her arrival within the story marks a decided shift from the masculine swordplay of the previous novels to more of an emphasis upon court intrigue, elements of love and the differences often inherent in a change of gender. There is an underlying, some might say feminist theme here, marred to a large degree by the author's repeated inability to avoid sniggering, somewhat sophomoric sexual innuendo, such as observations that "For sheer beef, Dog put them all to shame," or "'He wields a mighty sword,' she said. Vere and Terrible developed coughing fits..."  I suspect some readers will likely find this more bothersome than others.

As in the previous novels, the author shows a willingness and ability to weave back and forth between time and events, deftly opening the tale with Malinda's trial for treason, cleverly using this device to develop the larger past bulk of the narrative through flashback. And Duncan is to be acknowledged for not overworking the circumstances of the trial itself, which had to have been a temptation, instead avoiding its potential distraction and keeping its development only to the essentials that lend contribution to the larger and more important evolving background story. While Malinda's childhood lacks the narrative pace that succeeds events once the book reaches the point where the second novel left off, it does flesh out certain episodes and characters present in the first two books, offering a differing perspective. However, I must admit there is a certain drop-off here, intrigue, Malinda's strong characterization and an evolving love story combined not enough to achieve the earlier books' momentum.

The conclusion of this novel, which finally resolves the contradictions and discrepancies created in the earlier narratives, is cleverly done even if telegraphed midway through the book, and speaks volumes as to the author's abilities to successfully weave a complex and convoluted tale. Whether this approach in creating intentional inconsistencies between the storylines of the three novels is successful within the format of three distinct yet interconnected novels may be debatable, based upon some of the public's response to the conclusion of the second installment. However, those who persevere will be rewarded beyond the typical quest saga that dominates so much fantasy fiction, and Mr. Duncan reveals himself a better storyteller than most, with strengths of characterization and world-building that set him apart from the more pedestrian fare lining retailers' shelves. And, with these three tales taken together, he has amply demonstrated his ability to manipulate a plot with complexity and unexpected results, for which he is to be applauded. My only reservation in this is that unlike Rashoman, which was examining in a deeper way the various manners in which we view and interpret experience, even when shared and seemingly identical, Tales of the King's Blades remains only clever, spinning essentially just another well-told tale, when the author's not insignificant accomplishment in composition seems perhaps to promise a higher thematic purpose. With such obvious evidence of the author's ability, this seems a missed opportunity.

Copyright © 2001 William Thompson

William Thompson is a writer of speculative fiction, as yet unpublished, although he remains hopeful. In addition to pursuing his writing, he is in the degree program in information science at Indiana University.

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