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The Jackal of Nar: Book One of Tyrants and Kings by John Marco (Orion Millennium, £17.99, 660 pages, hardback; trade paperback also available, priced £9.99; published 18 March 1999.)

cover scan Jeez, y'know, I really can't make up my mind which is worse - competent writers who churn out Trekdreck and sundry other media tie-in tosh, or no-talents whose vast tomes of dire kack are eagerly foisted upon the market (in hardback, no less).

Yeah, its the latter.

Its hard to know where to start. Anyone who's read the Turkey City Lexicon, in Interzone and on the Web, might be intrigued to learn that The Jackal Of Nar is practically a compendium of the mistakes it highlights.

For example, saidbookisms. A friend told me a chilling story from his childhood in which a teacher went through an extract of written dialogue before a class, replacing every 'he said' and 'she said' with more expressive, active verbs. So help me, John Marco must have been taught by this guy because his dialogue sounds like the FX for a wildlife documentary - his characters stammer, roar, implore, hiss, whisper, snarl, yell, groan, bark and (above all) exclaim. (Look, John, it's like this - 'he/she said' is perfectly adequate nine times out of ten because the reader, who you should trust more, will be able to infer the tone of the dialogue from the phrasing and rhythm of words used and from the situation. Got that? Good. Glad to see you're taking notes.)

Then there is anachronism. In TJON this manifests itself chiefly in the dialogue wherein characters talk like middle-class Americans rather than the medieval types they are supposed to be. And how they talk - pages of meandering blather in which they come across as excitable 14 year olds brought up on Oprah. (John, buddy, listen to me - the watchwords here are brevity and mood. If the wording and emphasis of the dialogue are right, the mood is heightened - ferchrissakes, this is supposed to be a high fantasy of epic conflict, not Gondor 90120. And don't bother pointing out Robert Jordan's pages of dialogue because he really should know better. 'Kay? 'Kay.)

All the foregoing would be slightly less of an issue if the substance of the story, its background and ornamentation, were not so flat and unexceptional. Fact is, most of it is used furniture unimaginatively deployed in a simplistic, plodding plot. (John, John, dialogue less is more, but in the plot more is crucial. It's just not enough these days to hire the same old set of dukes and princes from Central Casting - the lurid, the gaudy and the just-plain grotesque are required to lift your stories above the usual swill. And the plot should have dramatic twists aplenty - we need to be surprised, John, not lulled and reassured.)

I could go on at further length about the bathos (in the early chapters, the main character, Richius, has an alarming tendency to giggle), the laughtrack (no emotion is ever implied, but highlighted explicitly) and the Idiot Plot (where characters minor and major are required to act like idiots in order for the plot to work), but I think that you realise by now that The Jackal Of Nar is a veritable Everest of blancmange prose. May its second volume never darken my cognitive awareness.

(Don't take this too hard, John - all life and art is a progress of learning through mistakes. Ideally, you'd learn from other people's mistakes...)

(Nice jacket illustration, though.)

Review by Don Baskin.

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© Don Baskin 9 May 1998