Fantasy Review: ‘The Lascar’s Dagger’ by Glenda Larke

Glenda Larke is one of a very small number of authors whose works are on my must-buy list, and a new book, and the first of a series to boot, is always cause for celebration. Larke writes a traditional kind of fantasy, not the elves and dwarves sort, but the type that relies on a refreshingly original created world, engaging characters and a story that compels right from the first line. And it doesn’t hurt that she has a wonderfully vivid writing style.

So why does this one not quite set me on fire? I think it’s because there are so many elements that feel very unoriginal, not to say tired. Parts of the world feel like just another pseudo-medieval setting, the parts that involve the patrilineal kingdom with the cold-hearted king, the playboy prince and the resentful but plucky princess, doomed to marry some hideous older man for political reasons. Yawn. And I’m always deeply suspicious of kings who have precisely two children, one of each gender. In a hereditary monarchy, there should be hordes of hopeful heirs, legitimate and otherwise, in every generation, or else an extremely good reason why not.

Other parts of the story are well up to Larke’s creative standards. The unusual physical world, with the continents clustering inconveniently around the polar ice-cap. The importance of the spice trade. The uneasily united branches of the prevailing religion. And the dagger of the title, a creepily semi-alive weapon. I’m a sucker for sentient ironmongery.

The main character of the story is Saker, low-born but now a pretend priest and spy, working undercover for his religious mentor while supposedly tutoring the royal children. And here’s another problem. Saker is a likeable enough character, but he’s made out to be some ultra-smart, ultra-devious guy, when the entire book is no more than a catalogue of his mistakes, where he’s taken in by one smarter, more devious character after another. Gullible is his middle name, and while I excuse his entrapment by the lady (he’d have to be super-human to resist, frankly), the rest of it just makes him look stupid. And I have to wonder why his mentor sends him off to tutor the prince and princess in the first place, a position he seems spectacularly unsuited for.

Of the other characters, Ryke the prince is the standard template for princes in fantasy, only interested in hunting, whoring and himself. Mathilda the princess has an even more limited range of interests – herself and… erm, that’s it. And yes, of course, it’s a horrible situation, young woman forced to marry evil older man for the good of the kingdom (and a lucrative trade agreement), but we have heard it once or twice before. Sorrel, the widow coerced into virtual slavery by Mathilda, would be more interesting if she stopped whining for five minutes. Yes, life’s really tough living in the royal palace with all your comforts provided, isn’t it?

Ardhi, on the other hand, the original owner of the eponymous dagger, is a truly fascinating character. More of him, please. Saker’s religious mentor, the Pontifect, is also interesting, and I also enjoyed the few moments onscreen of light-hearted nobleman Juster (although he reminded me somewhat of Maldynado from the Emperor’s Edge series; actually quite a few of these characters reminded me of some other book).

The plot is a little slow to get going, although that’s typical of most fantasy and isn’t a problem. It takes time to paint in the backdrop before the action starts. Once it does, though, things take off spectacularly, and the second half of the book is a fast-paced romp as Saker and pals stagger from one disaster to the next. Beneath the veneer of entertainment, though, there are some thought-provoking themes – of slavery, for one thing. Several of the characters are, in various ways, compelled to do things they desperately don’t want to do. This ought to make me more sympathetic towards them, but somehow it feels more like a plot device and therefore loses its emotional impact.

This fell a little short of my expectations. It felt uneven, the characters failed to engage me, the plot, while executed with all the author’s flair, seemed a little contrived. Political machinations are less interesting to me than well-rounded characters. However, the writing is, as always, excellent, and the foundations are laid for the next two books in the series to venture out of the familiar world of kingdoms and organised religions into more exotic settings. I’ll certainly be reading on. Three stars.

Nathan has reviewed this too: read his opinion here.

Fantasy Review: ‘The Lascar’s Dagger’ by Glenda Larke

The Lascar's Dagger (The Forsaken Lands, #1)It was during the otherwise enjoyable ‘Weavers of Saramyr’ that I finally figured out what was bugging me about the magic in several fantasy series I had been reading.  I decided to name it the ‘X-men magic’ approach, where for reasons never explained different people could do completely different types of magic; often being the exclusive user of that particular power.  And it was one of those things I couldn’t unsee; I don’t require an explanation of magic in every book but for some reason I wanted one with when there was this much inconsistency in what seemingly the same characters could do.

Well, Glenda Larke shows how it could be done right.  Several characters in her new book, The Lascar’s Dagger, have witcheries that have been granted during times of need.  Whether god given or the result of a force of nature is yet to be told, but simply by granting that something is guiding which of these unique powers people take on took what has often seemed like a silly convention into something a little more believable.    

We first meet Saker, or slightly too good but still enjoyable protagonist, with his spy hat on gathering information on some spice traders with an interesting new cargo.  More than a spy, Saker is a priest reporting directly to the Pontifect and knows that a shift in power caused by new trade lanes could lead to eventual war.  But his attempts to get closer are interrupted by another man, a thief with his eye on something hiding in the cargo.  They scuffle, almost blow each other’s cover, and while seemingly going their separate ways Saker is hit by the Lascar’s dagger in the thigh.  Notice that this dagger is mentioned in the title of the book?  Ya, watch that crafty little thing, it will play an important part in this book.

Saker’s next assignment sends him to act a spiritual mentor to the royal heirs, and of course keep his eye on the local religious head.  From here the book splits up between Saker’s story and several other characters; the two royal heirs, occasionally the Lascar, and most enjoyable to me, a young lady trapped in her own prison.  Saker tracks corruption, befriends a prince, and is flummoxed by a beautiful princes with a head full of ideas.  The Princess looks to fill the role of women fighting society’s oppression; but Larke refused to let her be defined so easily.  Is she good or just manipulative?  Perhaps it is best to ask her servant, Sorrell, trapped in servitude by a secret from her past.  Always the loyal servant is Sorrell, and an interesting juxtaposition to the princess; they both long for a freedom society isn’t willing to give them in different ways.

Not a real fast moving read, though where action is present it is suitably tense.  It is strongest in its use of setting and the various cultures within.  Political alliances were being built around spice routes, whole economies were being threatened, and within this framework our characters fight their own battles, big and small.  I could have read a whole book about the shipping lanes and the various island cultures being affected by them (I loved the ‘Lascar’ explaining just how little the term meant to him, a result of ignorant foreigners grouping everything in a geological area into one cultural group).

When not dealing with the big picture the book faltered a bit more for me; as a character piece I found myself surprised by how much didn’t work for me.  Outside of Sorrell I found it hard to connect with the characters; Saker was too good, the prince too royal, the princess too spoiled, the lead villain just a bit too cackling evil.  But as a set up for a series, and when dealing with the larger picture, I was hooked.  I am fascinated by the age of exploration and can’t wait to see it play out on a larger level in a fantasy novel (no, Kearney’s Monarchies of God doesn’t count; it left the exploration aspect after the first book).  I want to see how a certain cursed land is affected by certain actions in the book.  I want to know how the religious schism that seems set to grow turns out.

An interesting and fairly unique setting, a magic dagger that takes matters into its own hands, and a war brewing over spice lanes.  Add in the promise of meeting more than the one Lascar (and hopefully see the diversity promised in the differing island nations who have been lumped together out of ignorance) and we could have the making of a pretty nice series here.

3 Stars, but with strong potential for the future.

Copy for review received through NetGalley.

Pauline has reviewed this too: read her opinion here.