Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Review: Taghri's Prize

This novel (link is an Amazon Affiliate link) is of the genre of not-so-young-man-does-good stories that were fairly common in days of yore. Writers like H. Beam Piper and David Drake used to give us lots of these. They deviate from the young-man-does-good stories of authors like Alan Dean Foster in that our protagonist has at least a decade of adult life under his belt. He's done his time in the trenches (often literally) and is ready to wed his worldly experience with youthful energy to carve out his place in the world. He'll use restless initiative and wits to shock the world and his enemies, along with a strong sense of justice and an almost present-day morality to earn the loyalty of his followers and comrades. There's almost always a young woman who's only just entered adulthood but who also exhibits maturity beyond her years to win, usually by climbing the social ladder (if the society has nobility, he'll be a commoner or close to it at the beginning of the story, but fairly elevated up the noble chain by the end). A large component of his success will be based on this character seeing what others cannot, often by finding new and innovative ways to use whatever tech is cutting-edge for their culture. Piper's Lord Kalvin of Otherwhen is probably the pinnacle of this genre, though you can absolutely see how it grew from books like The Count of Monte Cristo and A Princess of Mars.

This book posits a world like ours, but where the monotheisms that came to dominate the world never developed. Taghri's world is one of many gods, and even the gods of a single pantheon can be jealous of one another. It's a world where the gods also take a hand in things, though slowly, and often through agents. It's also a world of gunpowder and, but for the lack of faiths like Islam and Christianity, looks like our own in the 16th century.

Taghri is an experienced campaigner, a veteran of the Sultan's wars who tries his hand at being a merchant. He's hardly gotten started when he finds himself fighting for his life again, this time against pirates. He slays the pirate captain and claims his ship. Among the treasures stowed on board is a princess and a knife that tingles with magical power. These treasures bring him to the attention of both this world's secular and divine powers, and he uses this opportunity to work his way to greatness.

This is a decent book of its type, but not a great one. The writing is engaging and descriptive, Taghri is sufficiently sympathetic (the dude never misses an opportunity to save a cat), and the action is written with gusto.  A sea battle about midway through the novel is especially fun.  However, you rarely feel much tension; suspense for our hero or his friends is frequently undercut when they quickly show that their hard work and cleverness has made them far and away better prepared for any encounter than their foes. The world-building also feels fairly meh. We get just enough local color for this to feel like a modern retelling of a story from the 1,001 Nights, but little else. Our hero doesn't help matters by never failing to exhibit modern sensibilities towards issues like slavery. While he doesn't give any impassioned speeches about the evils of slavery, he never fails to free any slave he comes across, nor does he show any interest in enslaving his enemies. And, while the setting strongly implies that Taghri's friends and allies own slaves, we never, ever see even one. This and a few other choices by the author leads to the setting feeling a bit like a Hollywood back-lot more than a real place.

That all said, this is a fine book of its type, and if you're spoiling for a book along these lines, you'll probably enjoy Taghri's Prize.

Gamers will appreciate Taghri's gung-ho cleverness, and the relationships between the gods and their worshipers feels very much like what you'd expect in a D&D world. The magic item in-and-of-itself isn't terribly exciting, but DMs will be intrigued by the way the plot is woven around it, and by how it launches our hero into a world of political intrigues and results in moments where the gods literally steer our hero in the right direction.

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