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Impossible Odds

by Dave Duncan

(Eos, $24.95, 365 pages, hardcover, 2003.)

Review by Stuart Jaffe

The last time I read a Dave Duncan book I had mixed feelings about it. I started off cover scanexpecting High Fantasy of the George R.R. Martin level and was disappointed. However, once I caught on to what Duncan was doing -- not Martin but rather an Errol Flynn type of swashbuckling adventure set in a High Fantasy milieu -- I had a lot of fun. Still, that book, Paragon Lost, had its flaws.

So, when I began Impossible Odds I knew what to expect and planned for an entertaining though fairly light read. Darn that Duncan if he didn't get me again! He gave me an entertaining, light read that went on to prove High Fantasy doesn't have to weigh-in at 890 pages and involve twenty-seven characters.

Here's the gist of the story: The King has ordered new Blades to be magically bound to Grand Duke Rubin in order to protect him (he's been "deposed by a foul usurper"). Only problem is that Ironhall (where the Blades are trained) has nobody ready to be a Blade. Oh, what to do? I know! Let's take our two most senior though thoroughly unready youths and throw them to the wolves. Thus begins the adventure.

I'd like to tell you more about the plot, but this story is so full of twists and turns that to say any more risks ruining the story. Besides, you don't really need any more than that. Trust me. This is fun.

Duncan starts off running out of the gate in what is a far more engaging opening than he presented in Paragon Lost. Instead of bona fide heroes, we are given naïve, belligerent, and near-blind boys who can barely shave. And they start off with enough history that I wondered if Duncan were trying to add a little extra depth to his characterization.

Well, for better or worse, this is not the case. Oh, they do have more depth, but, once the plot gets embroiled in story and counter-story and counter-counter-story, the possibilities for character exploration drift away. However, Duncan is so good at weaving his tale that you hardly notice until the book is done (a case of the "I know I just ate, yet I still feel hungry" syndrome).

The action is top-notch, and the intensity keeps the pressure on. I found myself smiling through the story, thinking that, while I knew this wasn't a high-quality meal (sorry to belabour the food metaphor), I sure was enjoying every bite (kind of like fast-food). Duncan was winning me over. He offers High Fantasy at regular novel lengths, distilling these usually overwritten works into the manageable and accurate essentials. And he does it all with a smile.

I also like the fact that these King's Blades stories are stand-alone tales. Duncan creates the trappings of a trilogy (continuing worlds and characters) while also providing a complete story. Let me point out that last bit again: a complete story. That's right. No milking you for three or more books, ending each on cliffhanger so you have to get the next one. Instead, Duncan trusts that, if he gives his readers a good time, they'll be back for more. (Don't read that last sentence too hard or you might be expecting more than Duncan truly wishes to offer.)

What's important in all of this is that the author trusts his readers. He gives them a fun story, loads of action, some court intrigues, and leaves it at that. If you like this level of fantasy writing, then Impossible Odds is worth your time. And, honestly, don't we all enjoy an entertainment-for-entertainment's-sake kind of story once in a while? I'm looking forward to the next King's Blades tale.

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