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The Prince of Shadow: Volume One of Seven Brothers

by Curt Benjamin

(Daw, 2001, paperback, £6.99, 501 pages.)

Review by Simeon Shoul

cover scanAt the age of seven Llesho, youngest son of the King of the mountain Kingdom of Thebin, was captured by the invading Harn and sold into slavery; his family were all butchered in the invasion, or so he thinks. At the age of fifteen he is a slave on Pearl Island, the estate of Lord Chin-shi, diving for pearls. Here, of a sudden, he is told by the spirit of his departed servant, Lleck, that his six brothers are alive and that he has a duty to survive, escape, find them and oust the Harn invaders from Thebin.

Well. Tall order that, but not to worry. Llesho understands about strategy, we are told. And about keeping secrets. He also knows all about killing, with a knife particularly. In short order he becomes a gladiator, and is sold away from Pearl Island, from which escape is otherwise impossible.

Except, in fact, that all the other slaves have also been sold away from the island, because of the mysterious Blood Tide, which arose when Lord Chin-shi's witch-finder tried to seize old Kwan-Ti and throw her on a pyre; the tide kills the oysters, the pearl beds become worthless, the slaves are all sold to the mainland... so escape really wasn't as impossible as all that, was it? As for his secrets, well, about every other person he runs into either knows outright who he is or clearly suspects it, and so far as his strategic capacities go, they never get a chance to prove themselves as he spends the entire novel as a pawn in other peoples' power-games...

All this looping confusion, disappointed expectations and redundant action is typical of Benjamin's plotting, but it's not the worse thing about the book. It's when he begins playing with his characters' emotions that one really begins to cringe. Llesho is a muddled ball of contradictions. At one moment he displays the 'flinty gaze' and resolution of a born warrior, the next he's a quivering bundle of nerves sobbing his guts out on the shoulder of some moist-eyed avuncular type. As this behaviour would suggest, there's a strong homo-erotic strand running through the book. On more than one occasion some considerate gentleman will undress Llesho and put him tenderly to bed, and some of the gladiators are open lovers. Benjamin, however, doesn't seem to have the ability to grapple with the theme openly or maturely. There's no intimacy or sense of understanding in these passages or relationships, just a coy, quivering sense of possibilities, or a blunt assertion that particular characters are involved with each other.

This hesitancy is typical of the physical, sexual side of relationships in the book, and that's odd, because as the Seventh Prince of Thebin, Llesho has some very explicit sexual obligations when it comes to worship of the Kingdom's ruling Goddess. It feels very much as if the story were a film, which had been given a 12 certificate; it can nod, nudge and wink at this sort of thing, but won't confront the reality.

All of this is dragged out onto the page in language which is clunky, confusing, and absolutely riddled with modernisms. People and places are described without any real vividness, and the physical reality of environments and fights is very poorly conveyed. The resulting 'tone' of the story is gratingly uneven. This is meant to be a High Fantasy, with an oriental setting (if the cover and names mean anything), but it strangles on modern turns of phrase and psychological concepts, and has about as much oriental content as a plate of fish and chips.

In sum, it's feeble stuff. Anyone who's had the pleasure of reading effective 'oriental' fantasy, such as Van Lustbader's Sunset Warrior trilogy, Lupoff's Sword of the Demon, or even M. A. R. Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne novels should fight shy of this froth of thin plot devices, feeble imagination, and third-rate writing.

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