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by Katharine Kerr

(Voyager, £12.99, 630 pages, trade paperback, first published 1 November, 1999.)

The Khanate of the Kazraki has fallen on hard times. The Great Khan, Gemet, is a greedy despot, steeped in violence, who cover scanrose to the throne over the slaughtered bodies of his brothers. Ten years of misrule and brutality has brought the Khanate to the brink of disaster.

When news reaches Idres Warkannan, a Captain in the Khan's cavalry, that one of the Khan's brothers still survives, in the far distant Vransic Cantons, he immediately sets out from the border, across the boundless plains, in a desperate bid to find this man, Jezro Kahn, and bring him home to claim the throne.

Unfortunately for Idres, the Great Khan's sinister and remorseless secret police, the Chosen, have also heard odd rumours from the Cantons, and have despatched an agent, Zayn Hassan, to track them down, and deal with any stray ends that might have been overlooked.

To add a little spice to what starts out as a straightforward race between the two men, it swiftly emerges that they were both, at one time, subordinates to Jezro Khan, and indeed close friends.

The plot, however, rapidly complicates. Zayn, falling in with a clan of the nomadic Comnee people, who inhabit the plains, begins to doubt his mission, even his proper place in the world, while Idres, guided by the disturbingly obsessive Sorceror Yarl Soutan, finds himself balanced between his belief in his mission, and his distaste for the man who is guiding him. The Comnee folk themselves, in the person of a Spirit Rider (shaman), Ammadin, become involved in the race to reach Jezro Khan, while all the participants find themselves forced to negotiate with the strange, Centauroid ChaMeech, another intelligent species who inhabit their world.

Katharine Kerr has been writing heroic fantasy, of a consistently high quality, for a good fifteen years now. Her epic Deverry series (eleven books out so far, with a twelfth expected), is her major work, but will probably conclude with the next volume. Other projects, such as the Polar City duology (intense and well-plotted science-fiction with strong elements of detective fiction) have demonstrated that her literary range is much broader than just fantasy.

Snare, however, is a disappointment. It contains mild echoes of themes that dominated the Deverry novels; the eruption of an unwanted foreign element (humanity) into a world where they have no proper place, the conflicts and struggles between a settled, medieval society, and a nomadic one that borders it, the quest to understand the obscure origins of the situation that the protagonists find themselves in, but this feels like little more than an author's nostalgia for a well known world and situation.

There is, regrettably, little that is truly vivid or original in the book. There is, sadly, a flatness to the characters, who have markedly little physical presence, and a definite lack of tension in events. The several societies depicted in the novel (Khanate, Cantons, Plains Comnee, ChaMeech) have their exotic elements, but they don't seem truly alive, certainly they lack any compelling freshness.

At six hundred and thirty pages this book, which should be a taut race, is a long, slow amble. Admittedly it has well-written prose and technically interesting premises, but these do not make a good story without the spur of sharp conflicts and vibrant characters. If, as one suspects, Kerr is now looking for a new series to embark on (with the end of the Deverry sequence in sight), one can only be relieved that Snare is a reasonably complete standalone novel, with no need for a sequel.

Review by Simeon Shoul.

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