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Confidence Game

by Michelle M Welch

(Bantam Spectra, $5.99, 419 pages, mass market paperback, October 2003.)

Review by Stuart Jaffe

Reading a debut novel can be a lot like eating a jelly bean blindfolded. Sometimes you pick a familiar flavour, cover scansometimes you pick a nasty one, and sometimes you are introduced to the new and delicious. So which did I pick when I read Confidence Game? Naturally, it's not so simple. This is a mix of all three -- though thankfully very little is bad.

The general story follows Elzith Kar, a superspy born with an unusual magical gift. She works for the Judges and their minions in the politically tumultuous land of Dabion. After a dangerous mission that leaves her mentally and physically scarred, she takes refuge with Tod Redtanner, an honest bookbinder with a naïve sense of relationships. Elzith lives in a world of deceit, intrigue, and corruption, while Tod's world is simple, quiet, and straightforward. So what happens when these two worlds smash into each other? Love and pain, of course! Plus a fun time for the reader (I suspect studies would show avid readers to be among the most sadistic people).

So let's talk about jelly bean number one -- the familiar. Well, this is a fantasy novel that features some magic (albeit hidden by a repressive government), various cultures and landscapes (laid out with the aid of the requisite cartographic contribution in the front pages), and a multitude of characters. Also, though not labelled as the first book in a trilogy, it is the first book of more to come in this world.

Which brings me to the second jelly bean -- the nasty. Too often, Welch departs from the story to describe cultures and governments and such that have little to do with the story itself. I suspect, in other novels to come, these places and such may play a bigger role. If so, fine -- but save it for those novels. These meanderings did little more than annoy me. Some readers might enjoy such tangents (I love reading Norman Mailer's works, which tend to be a linking of tangents), but in this case I found the material suffered for it.

Likewise, mimicking many speculative fiction stories, Confidence Game bounces between numerous character viewpoints. This, too, can be very effective, but it utterly fails here. The story is about Elzith and Tod. They hold the only two viewpoints we need. They are the interesting characters with the interesting relationship. It's their book, but Welch robs them of the spotlight for no apparent reason. This lack of focus is the one major drawback in an otherwise strong novel. I often hear that editors have less and less time to actually edit, but here is a case where finding the time to offer such suggestions could have made the novel (and its author) shine. Instead, we are left with shimmers of good things to come and a decent, though limited, story.

So, what's the last jelly bean all about? It's about Elzith and Tod. Their relationship (the greatest strength in this novel) is a central focus for the story. While this is a novel of subterfuge, it is also a love story, and one that works charmingly well. Welch proves that depth of character does not have to be sacrificed to the mighty plot, and nor does plot have to weaken at the first sign of characterization. These are inclusive elements, not exclusive. They support each other when handled properly, and, in the case of Confidence Game, they frame the entire novel. Without Elzith and Tod, the plot would crumble. Without the double-dealing plot, Elzith and Tod could not happen. If nothing else, Confidence Game is a lesson in writing cohesion.

As I swallow this new jelly bean, it seems to satisfy. If Welch can conquer her weaknesses and capitalize more upon her strengths, if she can learn to focus her stories, then I suspect we are witnessing the birth of a major fantasy writer. To summarize, I can cheerfully give this author the best comment a reviewer has to offer -- I want to read her next book.

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