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Ladylord Sasha Miller (Voyager, £5.99, 382 pages, pb). August 1997.

A quest to find a dragon's egg, political intrigue in a cod-medieval royal court, stout and loyal warrior-types, a young-but-capable protagonist depending on her wise-and-trusted mage ... We're talking the lingua franca of the commercial fantasy market-place here, collecting the post-Tolkienist plot tokens along the way.

But, it's not as simple as that. Middle Earth has gone all oriental, and the book's cover blurb leads us to expect a heady mix of feminism ('in a land where women cannot rule, Lady Javere has been named sole heir and son to the Third Province of Monserria') and sex (five out of seven sentences on the cover use phrases like 'not for the prudish' and 'erotic, exotic -- the ultimate fantasy').

It's not Miller's fault that the marketing people should be so misleading. The book is neither political nor erotic -- it never really set out to be.

This novel raises a number of issues without really addressing any of them very deeply. Oddly, feminism barely gets a look in. Miller's Monserria is run on rigidly male-dominated lines: a woman's place is in the kitchen, or serving the men (as prostitutes, maids, etc). All positions of power are held by men, and when the Third Lord has only female descendants, he must proclaim Lady Javere his son so that she can inherit his title. Sounds like we're in for some Big Issues but we're not: no-one even questions the way their society is structured. Even Javere, it seems, only accepts her role because second best (female) is better than nothing.

And, not to put too fine a point on it (the publishers don't), the book is presented as something of a steamy, soft porn, wet dream. Sex does get mentioned frequently, but it's usually only in indirect, gossipy terms. The more explicit parts of the novel are actually quite brutal: violent sex being used as a weapon of government -- and not in any kinky, S&M, she-loves-it-really kind of way... these parts really are quite unpleasant.

Not, then, the kind of book you read one-handed.

All this raises the question of how we should address a book like this (and that phrase alone -- 'like this' -- calls into question all kinds of assumptions). Is it fair to criticise a chunk of commercial fantasy for not being 'real literature'? Is it fair to patronise what is, in fact, a compelling, exciting and, not to put too fine a point on it, good read?

And it is. The plot ticks along too mechanically at times, with too many revelations accomplished by switching to a conveniently well-informed viewpoint rather than by action. The language (all 'thee', 'thou' and 'thy') can get a bit wearing. And there are the old fantasy chestnuts about use of magical powers: if the mage can read people's minds, then why doesn't he do it right now and save everyone a lot of trouble? But it's entertaining, gripping. I wanted to finish it (for the best of reasons...).

I might even look out for the sequel...

Review by Nick Gifford.

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© Nick Gifford 10 August 1997