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Vassal of El
by Gloria Oliver
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Reviewed by: John Walsh

In a world of flying cities inhabited by the airborne Chosen, the grim mercenary Torren finds he is unable to free himself from responsibility for a distraught orphan called Larana. Mysterious attackers have murdered the aunt and uncle who had taken her in and Torren realises a similarity between her circumstances and his own unhappy childhood. Soon the two are embroiled in a desperate battle to return peace to the troubled Chosen people.

This is a pleasant fantasy story with a happy ending that some will find needlessly sentimental. However, the general course of the narrative zips along at a swift pace and the characters generally behave in believable manners. There are constant reminders of the presence of the wings for those who have them which help to differentiate the characters and point out the fantasy element. There are other touches of time and place which work well. The naming of characters, on the other hand, does not make a lot of sense and it seems as if the author has simply provided them with names which appeal to her. While it would be unrealistic to expect Gloria Oliver to create as intricate and detailed a world as JRR Tolkien or even Robert E Howard, nevertheless societies as isolated and distinctive as are presented in this novel really should give rise to people who are identifiable by their names.

Fantasy literature draws from a long line of tradition, including Tolkien, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, Jack Vance, HP Lovecraft and the like. Each of these was distinguished in the ability to draw on the myths and substance of our shared history and their narratives characterized by language redolent of that past. To share in this rich heritage requires understanding of this language and the occasional borrowing from it. For this reason, I am occasionally dismayed by the use of modern American idioms which are jarring and which distance the book from the tradition of fantasy literature. This does not mean that the language must be deliberately archaic or frozen in the past or even that there is no place for modern usage. It does mean avoiding phrases and usage that reminds the reader that this is not a real world at all but an invention from a very specific time and place.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable page turner and it is good that some thought has been given to how society would function under the conditions specified. Trade and geography are included, while the characters – at least the two central characters – do show some signs of development. That makes this an enjoyable fantasy that can be recommended to fans of that genre, especially those of a religious bent.

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