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Paragon Lost

by Dave Duncan

(Eos, $24.95, 368 pages, hardcover; 2002.)

Dave Duncan is no stranger to high fantasy, and his tales of the King's Blades have cover scangained fans over the last several years. For me, this was my first introduction to Duncan's world, and I was quite excited to read the tale. After all, Duncan has been compared to George R.R. Martin -- a writer who is easily among the top five fantasy authors currently being published. Hm. I think publishers should be careful about using such comparisons, for they sometimes (as here) set the reader up for a fall. Paragon Lost is a good novel: it's fun and frantic and full of all the things high fantasy readers love. It does not, however, attain the same high calibre that Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire achieves.

The novel is billed as "A Chronicle of the King's Blade", and comes with the disclaimer that the story is not part of the earlier trilogies but a complete tale unto itself. So far, so good. A perfect situation, if you ask me, for a reader to be introduced to a newly discovered writer. Unfortunately, the novel is not complete unto itself -- at least, not at first.

You see, the titular "Paragon" is Sir Beaumont, a former member and the best of the Chivian King's Blades -- swordsmen who are bound to absolute loyalty by a magic ceremony involving plunging a sword through the heart. He has been thrown out of the Order and yet is being given back Just Dessert, his sword, and asked to help because a fellow Blade has been bound by an imposter and taken to Czar Igor who ... Well, the point is that the opening section expects the reader to be familiar with the previous King's Blades novels. This reliance on previous material made the first thirty or so pages dreadfully boring for me. I don't mind some confusion at the start of a novel (I rather expect it), but this just ploughs ahead as if I would know the depth of fear and desire to compete when a character hears of the Isilondians.

Adding nothing to this was the overall tone to the writing. It was, well, exactly what one would expect when reading high fantasy. There was nothing in the language to elevate the story into something grander than it was.

And then it hit me. The story wasn't trying to be anything grander. It was that damn comparison to George R.R. Martin that was fouling my reader's ear. Paragon Lost wanted only to be a fun, high-fantasy story in all of its good and bad conventional telling.

Suddenly the story took off. Beaumont is that infallible hero who always seems to have a plan at hand and be seven steps ahead of everybody else. How were they going to get out of the latest predicament? I hadn't a clue, but I knew Sir Beaumont did and so I happily followed along. And Czar Igor shines as the villain. He's dark, insane and ruthless. He's paranoid, vicious and bent on learning the secrets of the Blades. Are you beginning to get the idea that he's a bad, bad man?

Oh yes, everything was fine now. There were damsels in distress, misunderstandings that jeopardized success, fantastic swordplay, against-all-odds rescues, and every other ingredient one can think of to throw in. And what was for me the most surprising turn ... the darned thing works.

Paragon Lost, like most high fantasy, is an adult fairy tale. It is kings and queens and a touch of magic. It is peril that we know will all work out in the end. This is not the case in Martin's work, where anything can happen -- heroes become villains, and our favourite characters can die horribly before our eyes. When viewed in the context of fairy tale, though, Paragon Lost is a success.

Duncan plays out these well known characters with a sturdy hand, and we can enjoy the ride. To criticize the tale's lacks is to pick apart the very things that make it work. It is akin to the summer blockbuster movies (the good ones, that is). Yes, those movies are thin and lacking in complexity, but we don't care: they're designed to be fun, summer, popcorn fluff, and we eat them up expecting no more. Paragon Lost is a successful high-fantasy novel that asks us to invest nothing but some entertainment time.

How often does it happen that we see a trailer that leads us to expect one movie and then discover, as we sit in the cinema watching The Real Thing, that, for better or worse, it's a different movie altogether? I had this feeling while reading Paragon Lost, thanks to those cover quotes: I'd been offered a daring Martinesque novel and instead given a good but standard-fare high fantasy. To the maxim "Don't judge a book by its cover" should perhaps be added another: "Don't judge a book by its cover quotes"!

You'll enjoy Paragon Lost if you take it for what it is, rather than for what it is claimed to be.

Review by Stuart Jaffe.

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