Dave Duncan didn't get his writing career going until he was around fifty. But nearly a quarter century later, we are still lucky to have him around, just as prolific, his craftsmanship and inventiveness just as sharp. In his thirty-sixth novel, Duncan offers the first half of a duology with one fantastic idea — it's set on a world shaped like a dodecahedron — and generous helpings of wit driven by memorable characters. His loyal cult of fans will be in hog heaven, but new readers might find themselves wishing the story itself were more of a grabber.
The Vigaelian Face of the Dodec world is ruled by the brutal Hrag, whose bloodlord, Stralg, has invaded the neighboring Florengian Face in order to keep his easily frustrated warriors occupied and away from thoughts of treachery. The Hrag are followers of the war god Weru, and when they enter conflict they assume "battleform," their bodies morphing into fearsome, unstoppable beasts. As the novel opens, Stralg has subdued the Florengian city-state of Celebre, whose doge allows his wife and four children to be taken over to the Vigaelian Face as hostages for his continued servitude.
I loved the inventive way Duncan conceived the pantheon of his world, the different gods that its inhabitants follow, and the subtle way in which each god helps his or her devoted followers against those of the other gods. It is hinted (which is the best way to do this kind of thing) that the gods aren't exactly taking sides in the conflicts of the mortals so much as amusing themselves by divinely pulling strings behind the scenes. The most interesting concept is that of the Witnesses, who magically see all and cannot lie. They serve Stralg under duress, but situations are changing, and the Witnesses may be in a position to avenge themselves and gain their freedom.
Twenty years pass, and the children of Florengia are scattered about Vigaelia. The eldest, Dantio, is missing and presumed dead. Benard has become a sculptor of note, and still retains his boyish naivety and indifference to the world's problems; he also is secretly the lover of Ingeld, wife of the Satrap of Kosord (and a much older woman, a bit of role reversal certain to please some readers). This doesn't appear to be that well-kept a secret, but the Satrap himself, Stralg's brutish brother Horold, seems clueless enough. Good for Benard, as his life wouldn't be worth a pebble otherwise. Orlad, the youngest, has become a fanatically devoted Werist, but constantly finds his loyalty questioned as many Florengians have joined Werist ranks only to break their oaths intentionally and betray the army that has ravished their homeland. Orlad, too young to remember home and too ideologically strident to care, has no such intention, and thus cannot see that his own leaders mean to ambush and slay him.
Finally, their sister, Fabia, has grown up as Frena Wigson, adopted daughter of a wealthy businessman. She is similarly oblivious of her provenance. But when hints of her past begin to trickle in, she learns the even more alarming fact that she is a Chosen of the goddess of death and evil, the Mother of Lies, Xaran. Though she herself is anything but evil, she quickly finds the goddess's powers are very useful in protecting her from the worst intentions of the Werists.
Those intentions include marrying her off to the son of Queen Saltaja (a wonderful villainess I'd love to see Meryl Streep play), and placing her on the throne of Celebre. The doge of Celebre is near death, and the war in Florengia is not going well, with surprise defeats, rampant desertion, and the threat of open rebellion dogging Stralg's every step. If another puppet ruler can be installed in Celebre, perhaps utter calamity can be avoided, however temporarily. But of course, the remaining children of Celebre must be tracked down and killed, to avoid any rival claims to the throne....
Duncan doesn't write comedy in the way Pratchett and John Moore do. But he infuses his prose with a limitless supply of wit. Much of the pleasure in reading this book and his others comes from the many wry observations of character and human nature, closer to Wodehouse than anything else. This enhancement to his marvelous character development, coupled with worldcraft that is actually imaginative and original, helps offest the fact that the narrative is often thick with exposition. As much of a joy as Children of Chaos is to read, it does take time getting going. The story doesn't really shift into high gear until the final hundred pages or so. But Duncan's meticulous approach to setting things up, as slow as it can sometimes be to read, does pay off the effort.
Children of Chaos is another fine feather in Duncan's storytelling cap when all is done. The second volume promises even more derring-do, and readers will find themselves like eager children, anticipating all the chaos it can bring.