The Halequin's Dance (Book 1 of The Orokon)
Victor Gollancz 1997
Sometimes I wonder how publishers choose what books to publish. When I read a book like 'The Harlequin's Dance', not yet published in the U.S. , the question is unavoidable. This excellent book has in it all the components of a major fantasy bestseller like Tad Williams' 'Memory, Sorrow and Thorn' or Robin Hobb's Farseer Saga.
The village of Irion has, regardless of its historical importance, fallen into obscurity after the end of the civil war a decade ago. The archduke left with his new liege lord, Ejard Blue, after betraying the true king, Ejard Red in his final struggle in Irion. The archduke hasn't returned, and the castle, seriously damaged during the siege, is not much more than a ruin. Now, only five people live there: the archduke's sickly daughter, Ele, her crippled son Jem, her aunt Umbecca and their two servants. But when a mysterious dwarf with magical abilities comes to live with them, teaching Jem and helping him explore his surroundings his dull life is about to change.
For others in the village, life is maybe even harder. Cata and her father, Eyeless Silas, live in a cave in the woods outside the village. Silas once was the Lector of the temple in Irion, but he left his position for the love of Cata's mother. Now they live as outcasts, despised just as the Vaga people with their foreign god and vagabondlike lifestyle are despised. And just like the Vagas, Cata can hear the sounds of the forest and speak to the animals.
When the army returns, trying to create some order even in the outskirts of the kingdom, things are about to change. Heavy taxation, oppression of the Vagas, religious renewal but also more of a social life for the so-called quality people, like Jem and Umbecca. The new rulers in Irion soon enough heat things up to the point of boiling.
While essentially following the tradition in story-telling, world-building and character-development, a good fantasy epic also must add a flavor of its own. Tom Arden has written a book that is rooted in the same good soil as Robert Jordan and Tad Williams, but there are also things that are unique for his work. Although there are some hints about the bigger world around them, this first book of the series is solely about life in the village of Irion, which is quite uncommon in a genre where travelling is the standard way to show the reader how the universe works. Now a lot remains quite unclear, letting us rely on myths and stories when trying to understand what will happen next. And those myths are quite obviously culturally flavored, with different versions being told among different people. It's quite clear that the world will need some saving, but how and from whom? But there is much more than saving the world in this book, like some quite funny intertextual references to Jane Austen and her novels. A relative of some of Irion's citizens was the Jane Austen of this world, and the writer shows us examples of her wittiness, as well as his own descriptions of the absurdity of the so-called quality people in a small village. Arden doesn't come up to the heights of the original Miss Austen, but his attempts are nevertheless not unsatisfying. All in all, this is a book well worth reading, and showing good promise for the future.
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