King of Swords (The Starfolk, #1)
Dave Duncan

From Book 1:

Rigel has always known he is not quite human, but the only clue to his origin is the otherworldly bracelet he has worn since childhood.

His search for his parentage leads him to the Starlands, where reality and fantasy have changed places. There he learns that he is a human-starborn cross, and his bracelet is the legendary magical amulet Saiph, which makes its wearer an unbeatable swordsman. Fighting off monsters, battling a gang of assassins seeking to kill him, Rigel finds honorable employment as a hero. He knows that he must die very soon if he remains in the Starlands, but he has fallen hopelessly in love with a princess and cannot abandon her.

Through the imaginative landscape of the Starlands, Rigel’s quest leads him to encounter minotaurs, sphinxes, cyclops, and more fearsome creatures in Dave Duncan’s latest fantasy series.

King of Swords (The Starfolk, #1) book cover

Clearly, I’m still young at heart. I’ve been looking forward to this book since I pre-ordered it back in July? June? And the anticipation and the build-up to release day gripped me with the fervour and mania of a Harry Potter release. Not so that I would’ve prostrated myself at a book shop with a huge sword and contact lenses for white eyes, of course – even a decade ago, my enthusiasm for book releases didn’t involve such machinations. And yet, even though I have a child of my own and a respectable job for which I actually have to rise early, I still chortled with glee as I hastened up the stairs after yesterday was done. I whistled to myself as I showered and generally made ready to sleep. But I did not sleep … I read.

Immediately I was engulfed. There’s something about the way Dave writes his scenes, as if you’re in his head and simply observing thought processes which come hurtling off the page and roll over you with cinematic clarity. His dialogue is often to the point, though characters who meander are plentiful throughout his work and even though the back-and-forth is snappy, the mental work of the lead in most scenes is still miles ahead of the speech and you really have to pay attention to keep up with what is being thought as much as what is being said. Some of his most recognisable (and to me, beloved) tropes are present, a young man struggling against powerful odds and forces, which give the story its distinctive adventure texture. A monarch, often aging, always cantankerous or at least seemingly a little batty, and a unique, flushed-out world full of intrigue, schemes, impossible geography and a plot to throw yourself into and float through. It’s a beautifully put-together adventure, and reminded me, on the surface, of Robert A Heinlein‘s Glory Road.

Of course, it wasn’t a perfect read. There were a few grammatical issues, which you’d expect the proof-reader to have spotted: two occurrences of “halfing” rather than “halfling”, a “taller then himself” rather than a “than” (a common misuse I abhor), and “pour souls” rather than “poor”, which is just sloppy. Furthermore, the publisher slacked off on the “also by” information, missing out at least one of his published titles (in a series, no less) and listing a standalone twice. These are niggles, by definition they don’t add up to much, but they do all serve to cheapen the book, to downgrade the work in one’s mind to that of a lower class publication, especially when competition on the platform is so staggeringly huge from self-publishing. I daresay I missed an error or two myself; I hurtled through the story as a voracious fan, rather than a critic – but if even I can spot those when I’m not even looking for them there’s no excuse: the publisher takes a cut and has a duty to therefore make the work the best it can be and I’m sorry to say that, in my opinion, this time they failed.

Finally, I come to my issues with the book as a whole. The things Dave himself did that I wasn’t keen on. Not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, but I didn’t give it top marks either, and there’s a reason for that. Primarily, which I find mad given that I’m the younger side of thirty and Dave has five decades on me, I found the book too modern. It starts off in our world, which is fine, we’ve seen it before. But it’s a modern world, a world where “the web” and phrases like “Holy Shit” are used (and rightfully so, because they are, today). A real slice of the modern life, mentioning sampling DNA and passport verification and gun laws – all information you wouldn’t think out of place in a novel claiming to be a “modern thriller”.

I think this hit me so hard because Dave’s books have always been escapes. The Brothers Magnus series, the Longdirk books, The Great Game, Wildcatter – these have all, if set in our world in whole or in part, been done so a long time ago or in a time yet to come. The Seventh Sword, though arguably featuring a Human of today, was written twenty-five years ago, and there’s something about the opening – that obituary, the style and tone of it, and the undeniable juxtaposition between it and the world of the Goddess that says “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Canada anymore, Toto”, without needing to bring a dog into the picture. Even when the forth book was added to that series and the style of Dave’s writing was so clearly evolved, the world we live in now, with its phones and Internet, didn’t intrude. It might’ve been present in mind, but that never made it to the page, and the pages were richer for the lack of it.

The works that have big worlds all their own – The Dodec books, the King’s Blades, Pandemia, and a deal of the standalones just to name a few – these all have that famed Duncanness to them, which is present in King of Swords too, you can’t deny that. But I think they’re immeasurably stronger for not focusing on the here and the now. It’s not something I was comfortable with, it lent a sense of story to the book, made me stop and remember I was actually reading a book, rather than enjoying an adventure.

I feel horrible for thinking this way, because there’s nothing wrong with a contemporary hero. Rigel’s well-written and gifted of that quickness of thought and pervasive perception Dave instils wonderfully in book after book. And yet this huge barrier, this awareness and presence of Today, of the real, tangible world outside, the world I pick up a good yarn to escape from and leave behind for a while, was still there, slapping me in the face for the first five chapters and woven into Rigel’s thought processes and phrases and comparisons. It’s clever, inasmuch as he’s a man of his time and that’s well-reflected, but it’s a time that should, I felt, have been less central, less present.

I hope I’ve explained that enough. I don’t want to come across as having hated the book; the next time there’s a new Dave Duncan I’ll be pre-ordering and working with a spring in my step on release day with as much enthusiasm and innocent happiness as this time. But it wasn’t perfect, and whether that’s a reflection of the increasing complications of my own life and awareness or whether I do have a genuine issue with the book is for Dave’s other fans to decide. I’m glad I bought it, and will add it to my bookshelf with the solemnity and respect a new title by one of my favourite authors deserves. Indeed, there’s a good chance I’ll reread it someday, which is something I reserve for an exclusive group of writers indeed.

Published by Sean Randall

I am an avid reader, technologist and disability advocate living in the middle of England with my wife, daughter and pets.

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