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The Hickory Staff:
The Eldarn Sequence Book 1

by Robert Scott and Jay Gordon

(Gollancz, £14.99, 577 pages, trade paperback, published 20 August 2005.)

Review by Simeon Shoul

cover scanWell, reading this one was certainly a chore.

Story? Yes, there is one, devoid of both originality and surprises. Characters? It has those too, though as inadequately realised and unconvincing as any you will find anywhere in genre fiction. The prose? Flat and uninspired. The setting? Shallow and poorly described.

Plot précis: It's a parallel worlds tale. In the fantastical world of Eldarn four kingdoms are all ruled by descendants of the great King Remond. As such kingdoms do, they bicker and fight. In the north a fifth kingdom is ruled by the Larion Senate, a secretive fraternity of sorcerors...

Just as Prince Markon of Rona is about to try reuniting the four kingdoms (with a plan for unification as unlikely to succeed as a World Bank conference on Third World Debt cancellation), one of the Larion sorcerors, Nerak, is overwhlemed by evil forces from the dark places of the universe.

Nerak kills almost every member of the Larion Senate, and all the royal families, possesses the sole princely survivor and assumes tyranical control of all Eldarn. Shortly afterwards he makes a quick trip to our world, kills several people and deposits a very potent magical tool in a safe deposit box in a bank in Idaho Springs, Colorado (this being about the year 1870).

Quick time-skip to the year 2000-ish. Eldarn is still suffering the torments of Nerak's tyranny. In the meantime, Steven Taylor, a bored, 20-something Assistant Manager at the bank gets curious about the safe deposit box which has been unopened for over a hundred and thirty years. In due course he opens it and he, his room mate Mark, and his girlfriend Hannah get transported across the void into Eldarn.

Once in Eldarn they get to fight Grettans and Serons, Wraiths and Demons, join the resistance, survive assassination attempts, climb tall mountains, raft down mighty rivers, discover their innate gifts for magic, conspiracy, combat and what-have-you, and set about the necessary business of scotching evil and setting the world to rights.

As the above should make clear, there is nothing new here, it's all 'off the shelf' from the Fantasy Writer's Library of Themes and Characters. This might have been excusable if the ideas were well executed, the language fresh and convincing, and the fantasy setting credible. None of these things is the case.

The plot is really nothing more than an osbtacle course. You can see Scott and Gordon gesturing towards Character Development and Crucial Insights, but they just don't get there; the story simply boils down to a long trip through a series of mundane and magical challenges in order to have a laborious head-to-head tussle with the bad guy.

Regrettably there is also no appreciable talent with words on display. Scott and Gordon cannot breath life into a fight scene, nor render emotions with brevity and force; they produce stilted, interminable dialogue, and muddled, uninspiring descriptions.

Eldarn, as a fantasy setting, is crucially undermined by the way Scott and Gordon foist modern concepts and language on their characters. We have rebels who have grown up in a medieval tyranny, who talk intensely about the loss of their 'values' and the destruction of their 'culture' and 'economy.' There are back-woods trappers dedicated to the appreciation of fine wines, and soldiers who indulge in philosophical dissection of their life-choices. This is 21st century morality, ethics, lifestyle-aspiration and a fat, steaming heap of political correctness, sprayed all over a feudal society, and it just doesn't work.

My recommendation? Give this one a wide berth, and if you want to read a really lively, well constructed and plot-rich parallel worlds fantasy, pick up Barbara Hambly's Darwath Trilogy.

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