Thursday, 10 February 2000

Dave Duncan: Future Indefinite (1998)

Edition: Corgi, 1998
Review number: 436

The culmination of Duncan's Great Game trilogy, Future Indefinite tells how Edward Exeter does what he has been prophesied as doing, what he has vowed never to do: challenging the god of death himself. This leads his friends to believe that he has lost his mind. In the magical system of Duncan's world, the easiest way to collect power (mana) is through the sacrificial suffering of others. This is the way in which Zath has managed, as a psychopath becoming tutelary deity of death, to collect mana fast enough to become a danger even to the ancient established Pentatheon, who have been acquiring power for millennia. The only way that Exeter can hope to win is by becoming a greater monster, and after he does so, an even more significant threat to the Pentatheon. They, of course, are keen to remove Zath, but not at the expense of losing their own position.

Future Indefinite is necessarily (for the sake of suspense) told from the point of view of those who know Edward rather than by 'the Liberator' himself. They are desperately trying to work out whether or not he is sane, whether he has come up with some way around the difficulties that led him to take his vow, whether he has any chance of winning, and whether the Pentatheon can do anything about it. The reader, too, is not supposed to know these things until the end of the novel.

The trilogy as a whole is excellent, ringing the changes on one of the most venerable basic plots in the fantasy genre, the messianic hero. (Prominent examples include Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series and David Eddings' Belgariad, just to choose among the most popular works in the genre.) Like the heroes of many of these stories, the career of Edward Exeter is modelled on that of Jesus Christ. Unlike most of them, Exeter consciously follows this model, as he preaches a new ethics and a challenge to the established religious order. The closest parallel is perhaps John Barth's Giles Goat-boy, though Duncan escapes the accusations or irreverence and blasphemy that have been levelled at Barth simply by omitting the element of parody. The unpleasantness of the religion imposed on Nextdoor by those seeking to exploit the way that magic works there is an important part of the novels, and helps to raise them above the general level of fantasy. The third is also the best written and most gripping of the series, which as a whole could become one of the classics of the genre.

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