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Drinking Midnight Wine by Simon R Green
(Victor Gollancz, £9.99, 265 pages, trade paperback; hardback also available; published 15 November 2001. Gollancz, £6.99, 328 pages, mass market paperback, published 10 October 2002.)

Simon R Green has written some great fun, heroic magical fantasies with a twist - the cover scanheroes can be quite twisted themselves or at the very least, they don't usually start off being heroic.

Drinking Midnight Wine is no exception. Toby Dexter, by his own admission pretty much a loser, doesn't seem ideal material to save the world. But when, in our ordinary world, known as Veritie, he follows a beautiful woman off a train and finds himself in the parallel magical world of Mysterie, Toby soon realises he's going to have to act decisively or he'll be dead.

This book starts off brilliantly. We are drawn quickly and easily into Toby's character and into his fairly boring life. The switch to the magical world of Mysterie is smooth and accomplished. Once in this world, Green launches us into its oddities with some intriguing characters, a suavely evil villain, and a nicely depicted punch-up augmented by supernatural abilities.

This is not, however, the sort of fantasy where the hero wields a magical sword and saves the world by fighting. Instead, Toby and his friends have to battle evil partly by having the courage to confront it at all. In a sense, power here is not muscular but moral, and the battleground is choice, free-will and purpose.

So, Drinking Midnight Wine stands out as being an original and interesting fantasy. It is also a highly entertaining book, easy to read and great fun. Without making it an actual comic story, Green writes with a dry wit and irony which is refreshing and appealing, particularly when compared to the pedestrian nature of much fantasy writing.

Green also has control of his world. He knows what is allowed magically (just about anything, actually), and is able to supply a rational logic for it which seems eminently acceptable at the time of reading. Even things which I felt were not particularly obvious (why does Toby become a 'focal point'?) can be explained by the random nature of Mysterie.

Unfortunately, however, after his promising start, Green seems to lose momentum in the middle of the book. The bizarre midnight battle which takes place near the beginning, is very nearly the sum total of any real action in the book until we get to the final few chapters. For far too long in the middle, the story becomes nothing but a sequence of introductions to some of the weird people who inhabit Mysterie.

It's as if Green is so fond of what his imagination has come up with that he has to dwell on the people and spend time with them. He is right to be proud of his creations: they are vivid fantastical characters, well-described and well-named, who fit perfectly into his magical world. For example: Jimmy Thunder, god for hire; the Howling Thing; the Waking Beauty; Luna; the Death-Walkers. I on the other hand, while appreciating his imagination, wanted to get on with the story.

Reading this section, I suspected that Drinking Midnight Wine is essentially setting the background for a series of books. As Toby was being introduced to the inhabitants of his town as it appears in Mysterie, I felt that we, the readers, were also being given an introduction. A parallel world of magic, some of whose natives can pass back and forwards into reality at will, does of course have scope for a great many stories, especially from a story-teller of Green's ability. It is because I know he can tell a good tale that I found this book flawed. The story could easily have been compacted and some of the characters advance the plot so little that their appearance is more scene-setting than for any other reason.

The last few chapters picked up, as Toby and an assortment of others move towards a confrontation with evil. It's not only that we get much more action towards the end. I am not complaining about the fact that the middle section is slow, it's just it seems to serve no purpose other than to provide background details of Mysterie.

If there is to be a series of books set in Mysterie, we will no doubt be grateful for the details and peripheral characters provided in Drinking Midnight Wine. If not, I maintain that some episodes, particularly the visit to the Death-Walkers, need not have happened at all.

My conclusion? Good fun, but flawed.

Review by Meredith.

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© Meredith 6 April 2002