Upon reading Dave Duncan’s The Jaguar Knights , I’m reminded again why I like Dave Duncan so much — because he’s consistently better than he needs to be. Light fantasy adventure novels can get by with action, snappy writing, exotic settings, and paceyness; but while Duncan has all those things in spades, he doesn’t just let them carry the story. He insists on also writing plots that are unpredictable and more intricate than they seem, characters that are deeper than their archetype, and world-building that goes beyond changing the names on historic cultures.
In the hands of a lazier writer, the premise of The Jaguar Knights — a conflict between European-like countries and an Aztec-like New World empire — could have been a decent little bit of pulp fantasy. (In fact, Douglas Niles wrote that lazy pulp fantasy with his Forgotten Realms-licensed Maztica trilogy.) But Duncan doesn’t write the obvious conquest story, his Aztecs are neither noble savages nor bloodthirsty cannibals, and his culture clash is made plausible by both a genuinely alien culture and by authentically individual and weird interactions between people from the different cultures.
I’ll put up with a lot of pretty lousy stuff in order to get my fix of the fantasy adventure sub-genre; it’s nice that Duncan doesn’t make me.