The second instalment of Kim Hunter's jaunty and inventive Red Pavilions series begins with the long (and impatiently) awaited death of the King Magus, HoulluoH. Soldier, hero of the tale, man without a memory, husband to Princess Layana, the periodically demented sister of the (equally demented) Queen of Zamerkand, is despatched to track down the new King Magus, young IxonnoxI, while dodging the lethal tricks and traps of the lurking wizard OmmullummO (love those names!), who also aspires to be King Magus... Accompanied by Spagg, the trader in hands-of-glory, by a talking Raven, a singing scabbard, and one or two other hangers-on, Soldier negotiates his task with a blend of earnest determination and canny insight.
Hunter is obviously playing with several stock elements of current fantasy and older folk tales: the 'innocent-because-ignorant' hero, the mercenary army, the desert odyssey, the treacherous chancellor. These elements are mixed into a meandering storyline with rough abandon. By turns baroque, cruel, witty, slapstick, with dark hints of a vicious past hiding behind Soldier's amnesia, and a landscape that sweeps from embellished city to monster-haunted sea to leper-haunted desert, the story jumps along swiftly and, for the most part, satisfyingly.
There are wobbles here and there of course. Hunter still likes to shuffle her characters off stage, or into the next scene, in a flash, and there are macabre elements that give the book a darker mood than the last instalment. You could carp about a few elements that are just too clichéd (must Serpent-men talk in a bogus Hisssssss? Please!). But there are also wry twists, a sense that no single character is altogether in control of events, as well as moments of genuine pathos.
The Red Pavilions series is fresh and inventive, and it offers something rarer than it should be in a genre that is supposed to trade on the imaginations of its authors. It offers surprises, and those surprises are, mostly, pleasant ones.
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© Simeon Shoul 27 April 2002