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The Streets of the City: Book III of A Walk in the Dark by Alison Spedding (HarperCollins Voyager, £5.99, 338 pages, paperback; published 19 April 1999.)

Anyone who's ever started a new job and been introduced to all 50 of the other employees, just once, on their first morning, will understand my feeling on reading The Streets of the City. There is a helpful six page recap of the events of the previous two books of the trilogy, and also an invaluable four-page dramatis personae, but upon diving cover scan in I quickly found myself smiling and nodding as characters I'd been introduced to and felt I really ought to know, wandered past. Important and quite interesting things kept happening, but I didn't know who or why, or sometimes even what exactly.

I clung on to the book's by-line, "The Alexander Legend - as you've never heard it before", which was extremely helpful in orientating me as to the wider context of the story, but this is one trilogy which demands that you not only pay attention, but have also done your homework on the previous instalments. My apologies to Alison Spedding, since while I did my best at the former, the latter wasn't possible.

In this part the previous ruler, Ailixond, has died, and his "New Empire" is experiencing some technical difficulties. An adventurer, lord and former slave called Aleizon Ailix Ayndra, the eye of the storm throughout the trilogy, is manipulating and coercing the disparate factions of the New Empire back into a coherent whole.

Aleizon Ailix Ayndra is a woman, which is an interesting twist on the Alexander legend, but I remain confused as to whether she is the Alexander we think we know, whether that was her predecessor, Ailixond, or whether their exploits have combined to form a blurred composite that has now become the (exclusively male) Alexander legend.

Aleizon is a feisty, if not entirely sympathetic, heroine. She's clever, crude, earthy and empowered in equal measures. My main complaint about the narrative would be that we never really know much about what is going on in her head or heart.

Too much time is spent emphasising her love of "smokesticks" (which, in view of the author's recent sentencing to 10 years in a Bolivian prison on drugs charges, seems a little unsettling) and she seems to wander through a political labyrinth occasionally making decisions whose repercussions then bounce her about like a pinball.

A Walk in the Dark is not three immense weighty tomes (commendably for such a series), which explains why the narrative races about like a mouse on speed and with almost as short a span of attention. This gave a sense that Aleizon was in no more charge of her destiny than anyone in the novel, despite her physical and mental skills. Things happened in too rapid a succession for us (or perhaps just me) to see her as a pivotal force by anything other than happenstance. It was an impression unavoidably reinforced by the initial recap of the story so far.

I don't want to damn The Streets of the City with faint praise, because I did enjoy parts of it; Aleizon is a lusty valkyrie of a woman and I couldn't help but laugh at some of her adventures. It's an original depiction of a female character in the male role of ruler, perhaps, because this is not a fantasy adventure, despite the historical setting lending some obvious parallels and witchcraft occasionally being employed to ambiguous effect. Aleizon is a remarkable woman, but remarkable within the human paradigm, and so much the more impressive for that.

If you like your sword and sorcery novels then I strongly recommend you try The Streets of the City, because it appears to read like some of the better genre efforts but twists away from many of the expectations. I came away with the impression of a book that is interesting, though not necessarily an interesting book, which is probably down to my reading tastes more than anything.

Review by Stuart Carter.

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© Stuart Carter 18 September 1999