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Tower of the King's Daughter by Chaz Brenchley (Orbit, £6.99, 600 pages, paperback; published 1 October 1998) cover scan

The back-cover blurb tries its best. But temptation overpowers as it reaches the final hurdle and the word slips out: epic.

Epic is a word diluted by misuse. Previously seen rubbing shoulders with adjectives such as colossal, epoch or superlative, epic now applies to anything of sufficient long-windedness.

The Tower of The King's Daughter is an epic. A simple tale spread copiously over six-hundred pages, it tells of the trials of Marron, a young squire and Julianne, daughter of the King of Outremer's personal bodyguard. They meet at the Roq de Rancon, the foreboding castle-stronghold of the Society of Ransom - the sword-arm of the kingdom.

So, we have a man, and a woman, and so the obvious plot unfolds ... except that it doesn't. It doesn't at all.

Brenchley's narrative skills weave a spell-binding effect. Seldom, if ever, is a syllable wasted. But after two hundred pages the enchantment begins to wear, and the story loses its initial sparkle. Interesting plot-threads are snatched up briefly then tossed to the wind. The central hook that one harkens for to tie everything together never really appears. Admittedly, this volume appears to be the first in an on-going series, but no book has the right to fail to stand up on its own.

Marron is likeable, but his naivety - which too often oversteps the border into gross stupidity - soon begins to grate. He seldom engages his brain, seemingly content to blunder into peril, no matter the cost or risk to himself or his fellows. Julianne is less well-drawn but equally vapid, and at times indistinguishable from Elisande, her companion. This pair constitute the entire female quota of the book's characters.

On a more positive note, Outremer - the realm in which the story takes place - is realistically and bleakly painted. The air is often heavy with the odour of roasting children, and romance is homosexual bordering on paedophilic. Justice - especially for heretics - is swift and sentencing immediate; death being one of the more lenient punishments.

The Tower of The King's Daughter deserves a more intricate, interwoven plot to reward the narrative aplomb. By using inconsequential characters Brenchley never allows you an unhindered glimpse of the bigger picture, the one you actually want to see. But there's just enough to tempt the reader to sample further courses, hoping one day their hunger might finally be sated.

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© infinity plus 26 December 1998