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The Grand Design
John Marco
Victor Gollancz, 608 pages

Geoff Taylor
The Grand Design
John Marco
John Marco was born and raised on Long Island, NY, and grew up reading and enjoying fantasy adventure stories. The Tyrants and Kings series is an expression of his passion for epic literature and military history. He is currently working on the next installment of the Tyrants and Kings saga.

John Marco Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: John Marco
Excerpt: The Grand Design
SF Site Review: The Jackal of Nar

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Trent Walters

Winner of Barnes and Noble's latest Maiden Voyage award for his novel Jackal of Nar, John Marco now offers up his second and more ambitious novel: The Grand Design.

John Marco is a reader's writer, who appears to follow Alan Roger's dictum closely (from "The Horror, The Horror, The Horror"): "the important thing about writing isn't writing, craft or anything of the sort; the important thing is the world. We need to be engaged and engaging." And so is the aim of The Grand Design, delving into political intrigue, exploiting the post-WWII reader's fascination with war and pain (not to suggest that these didn't interest the pre-WWII reader as well), and swinging from one emotional high to the next. There is nary a dull moment.

Before the reader even gets to know the characters, a medieval battle rages with catapults and chemical weapons against the city of Goth. Once that city is destroyed and the evil ones of Nar bring the traitor to his knees, the scene moves to a torture chamber. From there, the reader is whirled off to join Richius in the hunt for an escaped lion that has killed a man... Then off again to the laboratory where a scientist creates the ultimate weapon of war... Soon the reader learns that this story is more than just a simple case of us versus them. And such complexity Marco handles well and with relative clarity.

One of the novel's strengths and weaknesses is the multiple points of view. Even twelve chapters into the novel, completely new view points are being adopted. While this gives depth and breadth to the novel, it also makes it hard to maintain interest. A reader who has a familiarity with the first book will have a definite advantage, having more of a stake in many of the characters.

Because of the complexity and multiple points of view, it becomes difficult to nail down the plot threads into simplistic lines. The gist is that two evil lords, Count Biagio and the priest Herrith, are duking it out over the lordship of Nar. Our hero, a former king himself, Richius has exiled himself from Nar to the enemy territory of Triin to live peacefully with his Triin wife and child. Count Biagio hopes to lure Herrith into the trap of underestimating his opponent's strength. Meanwhile, Count Biagio wants revenge on Richius and sends his trusted servant Simon to kidnap Richius' child. So Simon sails to Triin and encounters Richius himself, in whom Simon tries to instill trust. Meanwhile, Lorla, a sixteen-year-old girl who looks eight, is sent on a secret mission to infiltrate Herrith's sympathies... Out of necessity, much motivation and backstory, of which there is more than can be covered in this short review, must be skipped. The density of this narrative alone should appeal to any number of traditional fantasy lovers.

Why Marco isn't a writer's writer, despite his obvious love for the language, is over-writing. His language leans too heavily on modifiers to make it new -- a sort of new that shouldn't be made new: "The first few days were wonderfully good." Small scenes that need no real drama are made dramatic (for all the reader knows, Simon is simply on his way to visit Count Biagio, The Master):

"A kitchen girl passed by him. Simon grabbed hold of her elbow, startling her. 'The count,' he said. 'Where is he?'

"'The Master?' the girl stammered. There was a basket of eggs in her hands that she barely managed to hold still. 'In the baths, I think, sir.'

"'He let her go with an apologetic smile, realizing what a sight he must be with the spray of blood staining his tunic."

There is no logical reason for Simon to grab her that way other than to let the reader know which direction Simon ought to head and to make the reader feel sorry for Simon because he's self-conscious about his appearance. At times, the scenes even feel predictable: a page or two of pontification followed by emotionally charged dialogue -- though, admittedly, this doesn't occur often enough to become the general tenor and, therefore, monotonous. Finally, there are extensive and unnecessary expository passages between scenes (which bring the reader up to date if he has not read the prequel) and even entire, unnecessary scenes. For instance, the information that was conveyed in the first half of the fifth chapter is recapitulated in the last half.

Yet these are minor details to unraveling a story of this magnitude and perhaps are problems that only a reader more accustomed to short fiction might find -- not matters that would bog down or even bother the average reader, who's just along for the ride. And what a ride. Fantasy readers should keep a close eye on John Marco as his craft continues to expand, develop, and gain strength.

Copyright © 2000 Trent Walters

Trent Walters co-edits Mythic Circle, is a 1999 graduate of Clarion West, is working on a book of interviews with science fiction writers.

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