Tuesday, 11 January 2000

Dave Duncan: Present Tense (1997)

Edition: Corgi
Review number: 417

One of the reviews of the first novel from The Great Game sequence, quoted on the cover of this, the second, describes it as the most significant fantasy novel of the decade. While it is good, and attempts something rather unusual, I don't feel that it is that good. (mind you, I can't think of many fantasy novels from the nineties that I would describe as particularly significant.) Present Tense shares both the strengths and flaws of Past Imperative.

It is hardly surprising that the strengths are shared, since they are mainly in the underlying scenario shared by the whole series. In Present Tense, the two worlds of First World War England and Nexdoor in the grip of its rapacious deities are alternated, as the Nextdoor elements consist of a tale told by Edward Exeter to the few people he can get to believe in him. A new item which is good is a tribe on Nextdoor with a very unusual culture, completely unlike the European peasantry, nobility and barbarian hordes which usually inhabit fantasy novels. Instead, it is based on an African society with segregated groups of unmarried men.

A lot of what goes on in these books seems to really be about anti-colonialism. Exeter's own background - brought up in Africa yet (unusually) freely allowed to mingle with the people around rather than being kept in completely European society of sent to an English prep school - is explicitly said to help him interact with the people he meets on Nextdoor in contrast to the standard British colonial behaviour. But the whole background of Nextdoor, where the exploitative deities are normal Earth people who have gained vast powers as a result of crossing over, is a (fairly unsubtle) commentary on imperialist culture.

The major shared weakness is a poor start; with each novel, it is about fifty pages before the story grips enough for the initial "This rubbish isn't worth reading" reaction to wear off. I can't quite see what it is that Duncan fails to do, but this novel would be improved by omitting or rewriting the introductory section, which deals with the British army's reaction to Exeter's sudden appearance naked on the Western Front. Maybe changing the style so that it read more like the reader would expect from a 1917 army report - which is what it purports to be - would help. Alternatively, just beginning with the second section, in which Exeter has been incarcerated in a mental hospital in Kent, would be better than what we have (it would be easy to work out how he got there).

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