When reviewing collections and anthologies, there are two approaches that are commonly used: 1) if it is a short book, to mention briefly each of the stories in the book; 2) if it is a longer book, to touch on a few of the best works therein. With The Avram Davidson Treasury, neither approach is viable. At 37 stories, it's too long to mention all of the stories; and it's impossible to pick out the best stories because, unbelievably, they're nearly all superb. Davidson writes with wit, erudition, stylistic verve, and imagination. While I'll admit that I had never heard of him before I bought this book -- I bought it on the strength of the sheer number of good writers who thought the book good enough to write glowing story introductions (including Ellison, Gibson, Le Guin, Beagle, Wilhelm, Wolfe, Disch, Pohl, Benford, Knight, Swanwick, Bradbury...) -- I now consider such ignorance appalling. Davidson is easily one of the best writers SF has produced, and this collection is filled with masterpiece after masterpiece after stunning masterpiece.
Everyone has some favorite author whose books just amazed them, and whom they want to recommend to everyone else. Duncan is such an author for me. He's ridiculously inventive; his particular specialty is creating unique magic systems and creating the world that would grow up around them. In these two independent but related series, his system is built around magic Words. I don't want to go into too much detail, because part of the fun is finding out how the magic works, and I don't want to ruin anyone's enjoyment. Suffice it to say that it all makes sense, and the world Duncan constructs practically flows logically from his premise.
But don't let me imply that these books are all about world-building. In fact, the books are memorable as much for the characters as for the world. The first quartet is a coming-of-age story, and is charmingly told. The second series is a somewhat grimmer sequel set at the end of a millennium, and very neatly avoids the Belgariad/Mallorean syndrome that so many sequels fall prey to.
Amazingly enough, Duncan just keeps getting better and better. Like his other works, The Great Game is wonderfully inventive, deftly plotted, peopled with interesting characters, and thoroughly original. This time around, Duncan takes a familiar theme -- a young boy prophesied to save the world from a great evil -- and turns it on its head. To this already-great mix, Duncan adds thematic depth and better writing than I've ever seen from him. If you haven't read any Duncan before, this series would make a great introduction.
The Gilded Chain is the beginning of a new series for Duncan; unlike his other series, though, this one will consist of stand-alone novels, so the story told in this book is complete. And it's a very good story; essentially, it's a fast-paced adventure, complete with fencing, a journey to an exotic foreign city, and political intrigue. Though this book doesn't have the extravagantly original setting common to most Duncan books, it's hardly a derivative Tolkien rip-off: the political situation is heavily influenced by Tudor England, and the magic is vaguely elemental in nature. Though it's not the equal of The Great Game, it's still an excellent book.
While this book is set in the same world, and deals with some of the same characters, as The Gilded Chain, it is most definitely its own book -- it has new protagonists, is largely set in a different part of the world, and has a largely independent plot (which, while it comes to a satisfying completion, works in conjunction with the first book to set the stage for some interesting events in the upcoming third book). I didn't like this quite as much as The Gilded Chain, primarily because I found the pseudo-Viking society in which much of this book was set less interesting than the pseudo-Tudor society in which the first book took place. Nevertheless, an enjoyable book, and I'm looking forward to the sequel.
Sky of Swords fulfills the ultimate goal of any volume in a series: it is not only an excellent story in its own right, but it retroactively improves the volumes that have gone before it by bringing to light hidden depths. This book focuses on Princess Malinda, who had minor but important parts in the first two books, and fleshes out her story in a way that adds shades of newly-discovered meaning to the earlier books. For those who mistakenly thought (as I did) that this series was to consist of stand-alone volumes, well, we were wrong. I suppose it'd be vaguely possible to read each of these volumes individually, but the full effect of the story is only found in reading them together. I'm beginning to believe that Duncan couldn't write a straightforward generic fantasy if he tried to; so much the better.
These two books aren't in a series or related any way, but they're similar enough in tone and style, that I feel justified in reviewing them together. So what is that tone and style? The word that comes instantly to mind is lyrical. Yes, that's an overused and cliched word (which is probably why it's so quick to hand), but it applies. These are short books, and generally light, but with the kind of glancing humor, gentle touches, and sonorous prose that bespeaks something decidedly different and more shadowed than you might expect.
As an unrelated matter, I'm pretty sure my alphabetization is erroneous here, that Dunsany should actually go under "Plunkett, Edward Moreton Drax, Lord Dunsany" or some such. Oh well.