I’ve remarked before that Dave Duncan was one of my favorite writers in junior high and high school, and he continued writing imaginative, unique, better-than-they-had-to-be fantasy novels even as I became medium-old. He died in 2018, alas, at the age of 85; but being the prolific writer that he was, he left something like five novels in the publication pipeline, including the third and final volume of Dave Duncan’s The Enchanter General series.
So as a little aside before I get into talking about these books, I am these days no longer particularly young, and it’s easy to feel like I’m in the back side of my career, right. So it’s particularly notable to me nowadays that Duncan didn’t publish his first novel until he was 53. He had a whole decades-long professional career as a geologist, and then at an age when people start thinking about retirement, he wrote and published his first novel… and then went on to write like 30-odd more novels without ever stopping. I don’t have any plans to turn to a writing career, but it’s still a little inspiring to think that something like that is possible, you know?
Okay, so anyway, these particular books are historical fantasies. They trace, across the course of the three of them, the life of Durwin, who starts off as a stable-hand, and with the benefit of some training in magic, becomes… well, the series is called “The Enchanter General,” so you can probably guess. His adventures start in the early reign of Henry II and continue through the end of the reign of Richard the Lionheart.
As historical novels, they’re a little old-fashioned; they’re really giving you that pop-culture conception of the characters. This is definitely the Lionheart and not-yet-King John you’ll recognize from movies or Robin Hood stories or whatever. There’s not that sense of really delving into the authentic historical period like there is in Nicola Griffith’s Hild.
Also old-fashioned is the book’s handling of women. For the entire first book, basically every character of note is male, and female characters are mostly described in sexualized ways. This is clearly a first-person voice thing, as Duncan’s written tons of books that don’t do this (and the third book in this series, when the protagonist is rather older, doesn’t do it as much), but it’s still a stylistic choice that feels decades past its expiration date. I expect that many readers will bounce off the books because of it.
Which is unfortunate, because except for that, the books are quite good. If the history is a bit poppy, it’s also instantly accessible, with some great characters (including an excellent Eleanor of Aquitaine, giving the book at least one notable female character); and the intersection between the protagonist’s life and grand historical events is a fine place to set a story. And while this isn’t quite up to the standards of Duncan’s best work, it does share with those a propulsive energy that keeps pages turning; I sped through these quickly, reading them in even small free moments.
The poor handling of female characters keeps this from being an unequivocal recommendation, but I guess recommended for those who don’t think that’d be a book-killer for them.