Impossible Odds - Dave Duncan

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Impossible Odds
A Chronicle of the King's Blades
Dave Duncan
Eos Publishers
ISBN: 0380818345 (Amazon link)

Impossible Odds is the fifth in Duncan's King's Blades series, but while there is continuity of background, this is a standalone sequel, a complete tale in itself.

Duncan writes terrifically readable adventure fantasy, the short of thing that at first glance seems unchallenging, the sort of book which teenage boys devour greedily but the rest of us are supposed to skip over while we look for more serious books. Well, yes, Duncan does write unashamedly swashbuckling stories, but he reminds me of Bujold or Pratchett in that he writes in an undemanding style, crisply delivering his ripping yarn, making it easy to underestimate how good he is. Like Bujold, Pratchett or maybe Brust, Duncan tends to have you to paying more attention suddenly as things gradually become a little more complicated, and a little deeper than you expected. I'm not saying he's a particularly impressive prose stylist, though I admit writing transparent story-telling prose is a skill many novelists can't master, and he's not writing complex sermons on the meaning of life, but then again, neither was Dumas or Sabatini.

The King's Blades series is typical Duncan [1] - in a country called Chivial there is a desolate moor on which stands Ironhall, a training ground for Blades. Taken in as young boys, either orphaned, or given away by destitute parents, they are tested for superior reflexes and then drilled for years to become superlative swordsmen, destined to be bodyguards for the King and his nobles. The fantastic element is that they are Bound to their ward by magic; ritually stabbed through the heart by their ward at the height of the ceremony, they live on to find that they have nothing more important in their life than the life of their ward - their Binding heightens their reflexes, removes the need for sleep, destroys the effect of alcohol, lets them see in the dark, and, handily for young men, makes them compellingly attractive to women...

Blades are expected to die for their ward of course, but their Binding utterly prevents them contemplating anything else, and should their ward die of violence before them, a Blade will go insane. The Grand Master of Ironhall allows only a trickle of skilled swordsmen to be bound in strict order of seniority, and then it's off to a life of daring do - or more often, a life of boredom guarding a fat, rich, old man before getting involved in some daring do.

Sounds like adolescent power fantasy doesn't it? Especially given Duncan's trademark casual approach to sex, with strong female leads always throwing themselves at the lucky hero. Except that Duncan always adds enough depth and surprises to make his novels very worth reading. His usual trick is to take advantage of the Hornblower plot - have an unprepared young man thrust to top of the seniority by a crisis, then thrown in at the deep end before he even figures out how to shave.

Impossible Odds starts in just that way - the previous novels have depleted Ironhall's numbers badly, but the King is demanding new Blades to guard the life of Grand Duke Rubin. As the book opens the Duke is fleeing his country after being deposed, under constant magical harassment all the way. He seeks help from Chivial's King, who agrees to sent him to Ironhall with an escort of Palace Guard, some of the King's own Blades. On the way he is attacked by undead, who claim the lives of several of the Blades. Grand Master is in a quandry - the Duke clearly needs the protection he's requested, and the King demands Blades for him, but there are no candidates ready. Prime candidate is Ranter, strong but stupid, arrogant, a bully and frankly not much of a swordsman. Second is better material for a Blade being smarter and quick with a rapier, but Ringwood is only potential - much too young and inexperienced to send out. Nonetheless both Ranter and Ringwood accept what seems like suicide, being bound to their new master eagerly.

There is a third, more suitable, candidate. Bellman is older, wiser, and was better with a blade, but Bellman is being invalided out of Ironhall before he can be bound. With Grand Master's help, Bellman manages to persuade the Grand Duke to take him along as a servant - Bellman has an eye for puzzles, and has noticed something odd about the Duke, and wants to find out who really sent the undead that claimed so many of his brother Blades.

Chuck in a headstrong White Sister - a magic 'sniffer', young, rebellious, and very gifted - and a monastic order of Knights led by the evil Lord Volpe, who removed Duke Rubin from power, and the stage is set for a dramatic adventure. Duncan has more fun with the plot than usual, laying on the deceptions, double crosses and hidden motivations in a manner more common in contrived mysteries, and with his gift for spirited characterisation, the result is a hugely enjoyable, and intelligent read.


[1] Actually, I dimly remember an email from the author telling me about this series before it was published. I have no idea what I emailed him about, or whether he was responding to a newsgroup post, but I think his previous Shadow was part of the discussion. I thought the core idea of Shadow was terrific, but the book the work of a young author. Duncan described his new series as recycling the Shadow idea somewhat with a large dose of The Three Musketeers. This would be a much more interesting footnote if I could remember the mail in more detail. I do have it on tape somewhere with the rest of my post-grad stuff. Yes, tape. A lot of use to me now.

Posted: Sat - December 6, 2003 at 01:12 AM