The Prince of Shadow: Volume One of Seven Brothers
(Daw, 2001, paperback, £6.99, 501 pages.)
the age of seven Llesho, youngest son of the King of the mountain Kingdom
of Thebin, was captured by the invading Harn and sold into slavery;
his family were all butchered in the invasion, or so he thinks. At the
age of fifteen he is a slave on Pearl Island, the estate of Lord Chin-shi,
diving for pearls. Here, of a sudden, he is told by the spirit of his
departed servant, Lleck, that his six brothers are alive and that he
has a duty to survive, escape, find them and oust the Harn invaders
Well. Tall order that, but not to worry. Llesho understands about strategy,
we are told. And about keeping secrets. He also knows all about killing,
with a knife particularly. In short order he becomes a gladiator, and
is sold away from Pearl Island, from which escape is otherwise impossible.
Except, in fact, that all the other slaves have also been sold away
from the island, because of the mysterious Blood Tide, which arose when
Lord Chin-shi's witch-finder tried to seize old Kwan-Ti and throw her
on a pyre; the tide kills the oysters, the pearl beds become worthless,
the slaves are all sold to the mainland... so escape really wasn't as
impossible as all that, was it? As for his secrets, well, about every
other person he runs into either knows outright who he is or clearly
suspects it, and so far as his strategic capacities go, they never get
a chance to prove themselves as he spends the entire novel as a pawn
in other peoples' power-games...
All this looping confusion, disappointed expectations and redundant
action is typical of Benjamin's plotting, but it's not the worse thing
about the book. It's when he begins playing with his characters' emotions
that one really begins to cringe. Llesho is a muddled ball of contradictions.
At one moment he displays the 'flinty gaze' and resolution of a born
warrior, the next he's a quivering bundle of nerves sobbing his guts
out on the shoulder of some moist-eyed avuncular type. As this behaviour
would suggest, there's a strong homo-erotic strand running through the
book. On more than one occasion some considerate gentleman will undress
Llesho and put him tenderly to bed, and some of the gladiators are open
lovers. Benjamin, however, doesn't seem to have the ability to grapple
with the theme openly or maturely. There's no intimacy or sense of understanding
in these passages or relationships, just a coy, quivering sense of possibilities,
or a blunt assertion that particular characters are involved with each
This hesitancy is typical of the physical, sexual side of relationships
in the book, and that's odd, because as the Seventh Prince of Thebin,
Llesho has some very explicit sexual obligations when it comes to worship
of the Kingdom's ruling Goddess. It feels very much as if the story
were a film, which had been given a 12 certificate; it can nod, nudge
and wink at this sort of thing, but won't confront the reality.
All of this is dragged out onto the page in language which is clunky,
confusing, and absolutely riddled with modernisms. People and places
are described without any real vividness, and the physical reality of
environments and fights is very poorly conveyed. The resulting 'tone'
of the story is gratingly uneven. This is meant to be a High Fantasy,
with an oriental setting (if the cover and names mean anything), but
it strangles on modern turns of phrase and psychological concepts, and
has about as much oriental content as a plate of fish and chips.
In sum, it's feeble stuff. Anyone who's had the pleasure of reading
effective 'oriental' fantasy, such as Van Lustbader's Sunset Warrior
trilogy, Lupoff's Sword of the Demon, or even M. A. R. Barker's
Empire of the Petal Throne novels should fight shy of this froth
of thin plot devices, feeble imagination, and third-rate writing.