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Future Indefinite: Round Three of The Great Game
Dave Duncan
Avon EOS Books, 476 pages

Future Indefinite:  Round Three of The Great Game
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: Daughter of Troy as Sarah B. Franklin
SF Site Review: The Great Game

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Jean-Louis Trudel

The first two volumes of Duncan's The Great Game were ripping good yarns, compelling page-turners that kept matters simple by focusing on a few characters. In the opening book, Edward Exeter learned, on the eve of the First World War, that he was a major figure in a prophecy with ominous consequences for a parallel world. Even though he had narrowly escaped being assassinated to ensure the prophecy's failure, Exeter took quite a bit of convincing. After all, as a proper Englishman just out of public school, he was positive that his duty was to enlist in order to fight the Hun, not get involved with characters out of fairy tales! A magical intervention finally pitched him out of danger on Earth and into danger on Nextdoor, Earth's neighbour on the other side of a sort of dimensional portal.

On Nextdoor, Exeter discovered that visitors from other worlds could accumulate powerful mana by winning the natives' respect or, better yet, their adulation. Such strangers to Nextdoor thereby gained god-like status, and the first ones had indeed chosen to impersonate gods by manipulating the faith of Nextdoor's inhabitants. Opposing the old gods were a new sort of strangers, working for a Service not unlike the British Colonial Service known to Edward. Very much in spite of himself, Edward started on the path foretold, fulfilling prophecies and growing into the role of the Liberator appointed to rid Nextdoor of the bloodthirsty god known as Death.

In the second round of the "Great Game", he headed back to Earth to extricate himself from the prophecy. However, he was betrayed and dumped in the middle of Flanders, in the thick of the Western Front's worst battles. It took the help of a school chum, Julian Smedley, an old schoolmaster, David Jones, and a distant cousin, Alice Prescott, to rescue him and send him back to Nextdoor for the final round of the "Great Game", finally determined to carry out the prophecy.

However, the first part of Future Indefinite tends to drag as Duncan juggles a few too many secondary plot lines and subplots for his own good. In a novel, building up suspense can be fostered quite mechanically by simply delaying the telling of the main story. While some of the early story threads do reveal hidden meanings later on, others don't. In fact, the story's intrinsic suspense is somewhat undermined by the fact that Exeter is now doing his best to fulfill the prophecy in all particulars, instead of getting out from under it. The author does introduce a slew of traitors and characters with rather ambiguous motivations to make things interesting, but the only question tends to be "how will they fail or be converted?", just like we wonder "how will Exeter succeed?" instead of asking anxiously whether the Liberator will succeed...

The first two volumes conjured up more than a few memories of Kipling ("The Man Who Would Be King", Kim), with a sprinkling of military derring-do and a dash of Zelazny's Lord of Light, in a setting halfway between the usual backdrops of generic fantasy and a storybook version of the Far East. For those who might expect something similar, The Great Game has a few surprises yet in store for unwary readers, and the main one is a doozy.

The greatest story ever told has been a surefire crowd pleaser for about two thousand years. However, it's only in the third book that things snapped into focus and it became clear that this is Duncan's own "Great Game".

Yet, Duncan's gift for misdirection is such that it only shapes up as such fairly late in the book and, when it becomes obvious, he toys masterfully with the reader's expectations.

Tackling it within a fantasy setting is something that isn't exactly new. The quest of Tolkien's Frodo incorporated some definite echoes, and Aslan's self-sacrifice in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis comes very close to outright allegory. More recently, Elizabeth Moon brought a feminist angle to the retelling in the Deed of Paksenarrion.

In the end, Duncan's version is the control freak's version. Tolkien chose to illustrate the workings of Providence, while Moon decided to emphasize the power of a free sacrifice and resignation to divine will. But Exeter stage-manages most of his march into Nextdoor history with the help of the prophecy's directions. (It feels like a wry comment on our own world's version of the same story...) In a way, he brings to mind the crippled hero of Duncan's SF novel West of January, who finally snatches victory from defeat and powerlessness.

Though Duncan sticks closer to the original story than Lewis, the meaning of Exeter's mission depends much more on the context of Nextdoor and its system of magic.

However, the novel is unafraid to tackle head-on the ethics of Exeter's situation, who must sacrifice human lives to gain the power needed to challenge the god known as Death. The book's most powerful moments are those where the characters come to grips with the impossibly hard choices entailed by Edward Exeter's path.

The author's dry sense of humour saves such scenes from turning into lectures. Duncan is not reluctant to play on the oddly appealing contrast between the proprieties of Edwardian England and the cruelties of a medieval society.

In the end, one may appreciate the clever plot twists that keep readers guessing till the end or the sly commentary on such diverse topics as the British Empire and Christianity. While the first part of Future Indefinite is something of a slog, the ending is a definite nailbiter. The key to our continued interest is that the characters remain quite engaging. Readers who cared for them in the first two rounds should not be disappointed by this third round of the game.

I'll conclude with a full disclosure. Attentive readers may note my name in the acknowledgments of Past Imperative, the first volume in the trilogy. My involvement was in fact limited to a quick translation of a few lines that appear in French in that book. While I don't think this invalidates my review of the final tome, readers are free to draw their own conclusions.

Copyright © 1998 by Jean-Louis Trudel

Jean-Louis Trudel is a busy, bilingual writer from Canada, with two novels and fourteen young adult books to his credit in French. He's also a moderately prolific reviewer and short story writer.

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