The Reaver Road

by Dave Duncan,
ISBN: 0345374819

The Cutting Edge

by David Duncan,
400 pages,
ISBN: 0345378962

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The Old Order Crumbles
by John Doyle

SINCE HE began writing in 1984, Calgary's Dave Duncan has published a remarkable 14 novels, most of them in the fantasy vein. The publication of The Cutting Edge in hardcover is an acknowledgement of Duncan's growing stature and the increasing sophistication of his work.

The first volume of a projected four-novel series (the overall title is "A Handful of Men"), The Cutting Edge is a rich, complex, and rollicking adventure-fantasy. The time is the end of the Third Millennium and across the world there are strange signs that a terrible anarchy is about to be let loose. For centuries, order and stability have held fast because the world's four supreme warlocks refrain from meddling in ordinary affairs with their most potent powers. The situation is analogous to the Cold War world in which the certainty of mutual nuclear destruction bolstered an uneasy peace. Now as then, however, the old order is crumbling.

Duncan starts his stirring tale from the viewpoint of Ylo, a member of a once exalted family, who now serves as a mere foot soldier in the army of the Empire. Ylo is a broth of a boy, but not foolish, and is often given to musing on ways of impressing girls. Much of the action is seen from his critical and slightly cynical perspective, and that lends a vaguely ironic -and very welcome - tone to the narrative.

Anyone unamused by lusher styles of fantasy-writing will find the clarity in Duncan's work refreshing. In this book, for instance, when one of the ballyhooed warlocks makes his first appearance, his first words are "You nearly screwed up!" This directness is a feature of The Cutting Edge. The concerns of its characters are real -money, family, personal politics, and personal security.

Not that the tale that unfolds is mundane or lacking in colour. In a distant, peaceful kingdom resides Rap, a former stableboy now married to the beautiful Queen Inos. Happy and beloved by all, Rap has repressed his own powers of sorcery but finds himself ineluctably drawn in to the tide of apprehension at the crumbling order of the world. Like the archetypal retired lawman who has hung up his guns, Rap reluctantly returns to the fray and joins an ensemble of characters who battle for the restoration of order and peace. There is clearly a lot more action to come in the forthcoming books of the series, but The Cutting Edge is a cracking good start.

Apart from the raucous action and adventure, The Cutting Edge also has its fair share of endearing incidents and characters. Readers will almost certainly be charmed by the gnomes - tiny, roly-poly critters with an aversion to bath water. They work as ratcatchers by night, when they emerge to issue the most charming non sequiturs. Duncan clearly has an underused gift for gentle comedy.

Regrettably, the same praise cannot be lavished on The Reaver Road. A stand-alone fantasy novel, it simply fails to come to life. It is largely the self-told tale of one man, Omar the Storyteller, and it tries too hard to charm and amuse. Omar is a cynical, droll fellow who is meant to be a bit of a wag. Instead his arch humour quickly pales, and the clotted syntax of his speech is grindingly irritating. The action is stalled at all too frequent intervals by Omar's endless prattle.

Dave Duncan's fantasy fiction has its merits and he is developing a unique voice. The Cutting Edge displays great verve and a nimble, direct style unencumbered by the baroque and prolix prose that so often characterizes fantasy. Still, Duncan's fiction has its limits women are always good and true and are never as alive as the men. The driving force behind the male characters is a basic macho taste for war and revenge, and they have a childlike simplicity that is occasionally cloying.

On the strength of The Cutting Edge, it is possible to proclaim that Duncan has started a new fantasy series with a full head of steam. Beneath the surface frippery, he's writing fine, old-fashioned action and adventure sagas.


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