Ill Met in the Arena
Dave Duncan
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Buy *Ill Met in the Arena* by Dave Duncan

Ill Met in the Arena
Dave Duncan
Tor Fantasy
320 pages
December 2009
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Once again, Dave Duncan exhibits his excellent storytelling talent for creating an exciting fantasy world. Nobles with strong psychic powers rule Aureity, and in order to keep and even strengthen their powers, the nobles selectively bred only within the noble lineages. The nobles are divided into five different castes according to the number and rank of their great-great-grandparents. While some of the noblemen might on occasion have to marry even ordinaries, the noblewomen can only marry men of better lineages than themselves. The psychic powers are very strictly divided by gender; noblewomen possess mind powers such as telepathy and the ability tell truth from lies, while the noble men display more physical powers such as telekinesis and teleportation. Because of their powers, women rule the seven hegemonies of Aureity, and war is officially a distant memory.

The young men show off their powers during games in arenas around the hegemonies, giving them the chance to catch the eye of the breeders of a noble house and perhaps even the eye of a lady herself. The men compete in telekinetic lifting, wrestling, and throwing javelins in front of a large crowd of spectators, both noble and ordinaries.

The majority of the competitors are young men hoping to win themselves a highborn wife and a high office. They wear their caste marks on their forehead, and the number of their noble and royal forebears can be seen in the markings on their cloaks. However, sometimes blanks enter the competitions as well, men without caste marks or cloak marks. Quirt of Mundil is one of them.

Quirt is in his forties and has been forced to compete in the arenas again. When he was young, he was one of the best competitors ever. Now he is sure that he can beat almost any opponent, and he will need all of his skills and abilities so that he can put his life back together.

Before his birth, Quirt’s royal mother was drugged, raped, and left for dead - a crime almost unheard of among the nobles due to the noblewomen’s mind-control powers. Years ago, Quirt was doomed to look for the man responsible, whom he calls "the Enemy." When Quirt was doomed, he was also unnamed; officially, he should not be able to compete. However, he has learned the identity of his Enemy only recently. Convinced that competing is his best chance at finding the Enemy and maneuvering him into a vulnerable place, Quirt uses what little influence he still has to enter as a blank under an assumed name.

Unfortunately for Quirt’s plans, a new competitor arrives to the first competition Quirt takes part in. Humate of Alfet, son of one of the Hegemonic Houses, enters, along with three of his bodyguards whose intent is to keep the most dangerous opponents at bay. Quirt beats the arrogant youngster, who then decides to find out who Quirt is and ruin him.

The story is told in first-person and present tense. Duncan is skilled with this somewhat eccentric writing style which adds to the urgency of the atmosphere. When Quirt tells his bittersweet history to Humate, that story is told in the past tense, making it easy to distinguish what is going on when.

The world is well-done and fascinating. The rigid caste system distinguishes it from other epic fantasy stories. The powerful magical abilities are integral to the plot and setting and handled well, the plot revealed in non-linear fashion.

Most of the characters are sympathetic, and Quirt is an engaging storyteller even if he seems a standard fantasy hero - strong, resilient, determined, loyal. Humate turns out to be an interesting foil and rival to Quirt. Their relationship evolves compellingly during the tale.

Quirt’s mother, Hyla, has never recovered from the drug that was used on her and is quite mad. Quirt’s foster parents keep Hyla hidden from the Enemy; she was once the ruler of her own small island, but because of her mental state, her father was forced to rule instead. In Aurity, men deemed too violent to be rulers, yet Hyla’s father has succeeded admirably. A greater host of characters make up the small inner circle of Quirt’s confidantes and also his supportive family.

The plot features many fights but mostly centers on political maneuvering and scheming. However, given the characters’ psychic powers, those fights are spectacular.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Mervi Hamalainen, 2009

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