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Scabbard's Song
Book three of The Red Pavilions

by Kim Hunter

(Orbit, £10.99, 330 pages, trade paperback; 2003. Mass market paperback: Orbit, £6.99, 409 pages, May 2004.)

The third and final installment of Hunter's Red Pavilions series sees its amnesiac cover scanprotagonist, Soldier, jumping through yet more hoops and dodging the blows of Fate and Foes as he attempts to make sense of his missing past, his current life and his threatening future. As husband to Princess Layana, now the rightful Queen of Zamerkand thanks to the treacherous, usurping Chancellor, Humbold (who has done away with Layana's sister, the former Queen), Soldier is primarily responsible for protecting his wife, her city, and the realm of Guthrum from the unfriendly attentions of ambitious conspirators and barbarian hoardes.

He also feels obliged to go a-questing for his missing memory, and that of his wife, who is also amnesiac... This leads him through a series of travels and encounters; slimy marshes, bottomless chasms, shadowy forests, infested with welcome and unwelcome companions (beauteous maidens jostle with moronic yet sly ogres, and polite but rigidly rule-mongering dragons).

Regardless of which Soldier, well, 'soldiers on' as it were. Riddles are unriddled, chasms are bridged (in proper fairy-tale fashion), enemies are slain, or tricked, or pricked in their honour, all just in time for Soldier and his cohorts to square up to the real challenge.

For, at last, the conflict long awaited has arrived. The two great wizards, IxonnoxI (good) and OmmullummO (evil) are squaring up to fight for the throne of the King-Magus. However, rather than go at it head-to-head (and reduce the world to a glowing cinder in the process) they elect to fight it out by proxies. Soldier, his mercenary army of Carthagans (the dwellers in the Red Pavilions) and the hapless Guthrumites, find themselves up against the minions of OmmullummO, including the obligatory Barbarian Hordes and a dark figure of Nemesis from Soldier's haunted past...

The reason why these books work so well is their humour. There are grim deeds done here, and painful revelations (Soldier is not the man he thought he was, nor one he particularly wanted to be), but no-one, ultimately, takes themselves too seriously. The characters tease each other, occasionally with real wit, and this lightens the tone and helps the story zip along. With its blend of classic, fairy-tale themes and motifs, its inventiveness and its engaging language and attitude, Hunter's trilogy delivers high-value entertainment, and is a fresh and welcome departure from the stale, high fantasy, Dungeons and Dragons-based fake medievalism that chokes so much of the genre.

Review by Simeon Shoul.

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