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Bewildering Stories

Dave Duncan, Ill Met in the Arena

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Ill Met in the Arena
Author: Dave Duncan
Publisher: Tor, 2008
Length: 285 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-7653-1687-5
One of the great pleasures of speculative fiction is the chance to immerse oneself in a convincingly portrayed alien (or at least foreign) culture. When it’s done right, it’s a world with its own internal cohesion; rules that may be unfamiliar, but ones we can still get; characters that convince and stand up from the page. Often, these worlds echo the familiar, with just enough strangeness to entertain. Thus we have settings that riff on Nordic mythology, Hindu castes, Nazis, Celtic legends. Some rare authors even manage to bring us successfully into a completely new and alien setting.

Dave Duncan does well with the stage setting in Ill Met in the Arena. There’s an art to imparting background information without belaboring the reader with the fantastic version of a history lesson, which no one enjoys (although my twelfth grade history teacher kept his class of slackers thoroughly entertained, because he taught history as if it were the world’s longest gossip fest. Did you know that Napoleon liked to write Josephine and tell her not to bathe before he came home?).

Right away, the setting of Duncan’s novel catches our attention. We have a matriarchal society, with sex-specific paranormal powers; we have males competing in a formal contest of psychic powers to show their fitness to be mates, King Kongs beating their chests to show who’s got the mostest. The genealogy-quoting matriarchs who play Cupid in this future society have computer matchmaking beat to pieces.

Of course, we all know that once in a while, blood doesn’t run true. Or, more to the point, incest does have its risks (although consanguinity can work out just fine in a few families, as the Rothschilds should know). Quirt, a man stripped of his former royal name for failing to protect his consort, has a monster for a father. He’s spent his life searching for the rapist who fathered him and killed his new bride. He’s getting closer to finding his enemy, but his search has become more complicated. He’s just met and bested his younger but monstrously strong half-brother in the arena. But arrogant young Humate won’t accept that their father is a monster, nor that the nameless Quirt is his half-brother. Winning Humate’s help is vital, because their father is searching for the bastard he whelped and the woman he thought he had killed, and Papa is more than violent and strong enough to finish off both of the brothers...

I confess to really enjoying this book. Duncan’s lively writing reminds me somewhat of Steven Brust’s. This is the first work by Duncan that I’ve read, although by looking at the list of his writing inside the front cover of the book, I can see he’s been a busy man. Here’s hoping more books by Duncan come my way soon. Enjoy!

Copyright © 2008 by Danielle L. Parker

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