So after finishing the big ol’ book of musical history, I was filled with a desire to re-read Dave Duncan’s “A Man of His Word” series (Magic Casement, Perilous Seas, Faery Lands Forlorn, and Emperor and Clown). I was a bit nervous about it, because this was one of my favorite series when I was junior high — the same time I was reading, and loving, David Eddings and R.A. Salvatore and the like — and while I knew that recent Duncan was good enough for adult scrutiny, I was a bit afraid that these wouldn’t be as good as I remembered.
Happily, my fear was groundless, because these books are great. They remain immensely fun adventures, with characters I love, and world-building and magic systems that are still fresh and interesting. In fact, they were so compelling that I immediately did something I didn’t mean to do, and jumped right into Dave Duncan’s “A Handful of Men” (The Cutting Edge, Upland Outlaws, The Stricken Field, and The Living God).
Reading all eight of these books in a gulp, I was impressed again at Duncan’s range. Because while “A Handful of Men” is a sequel to “A Man of His Word”, it’s a very, very different series. This isn’t some Mallorean-like thing, where he just re-wrote the first series.
Fundamentally, “A Man of His Word” is a coming of age story, and focuses on two teenage protagonists becoming adults. The story is about their personal journeys and growth, and is told in a high-energy teenage voice. But “A Handful of Men” is about a period of historical turmoil and epic happenings in the world. Its protagonists are primarily mature characters who know their place in the world, and its voice is more assured and relaxed even as the scope of events is ratcheted up in importance. That Duncan was able to write books that felt so different while featuring the same world and characters is a heck of an accomplishment.
So the books definitely live up to the quality standards I expect of my reading these days. What about the things that I didn’t pay attention to back then, like sexism and racism?
On the sexism front, well, these are set in an objectively sexist world — one of the main plot drivers of the first series is whether people will accept a queen regnant — but they’re not sexist books. The female protagonists in the books are strong characters (and at one point, two of them even have a discussion about the unfair sexism of their world — not in a didactic way, but in the way that a strong young woman who’d grown up in relative isolation might, when she encounters the unpleasant realities of a sexist society). They pass my test of okayness, and will probably pass yours, unless you demand gender-equal utopias in all fantasy.
On the racism front, it’s more complicated. For the most part, the biggest sin the books commit is racial essentialism — members of this race really are different than members of that race. Personally, I forgive it by thinking that it’s doing to David Eddings’ books what Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw did to Trollope — asking, “If people were really as described in this book, what would that mean?” and coming to the conclusion, “It’d mean they were fantasy creatures.” Because Eddings’ “national character” bits, where everyone from a country has the same personality traits, makes no sense at all. But saying that djinns tend to be proud, and goblins savage, well, okay, I can go with that.
That said, there’s an unfortunate bit in the last couple of books where a previously off-screen race (anthropophagi) turn out to be dark-skinned cannibals with bones through their noses, which is legitimately regrettable. But for the most part, the books are fairly positive on the subject, with elements like a protagonist being portrayed as a decent and admirable person for treating members of despised races (gnomes, who feed on garbage) as worthy of respect and dignity. It’s good enough for me, and certainly better than epic fantasy average.
Anyway, the upshot is, these books that I loved when I was in middle school turn out to be precisely the sort of book that I love now, and I think they’re still among my favorite Dave Duncan books, and consequently among my favorite fantasy novels. If you haven’t read these, they are back in print now (in POD editions, so you probably need to get them from Amazon instead of going to a legacy bookstore), and absolutely worth reading.