Edition: Voyager, 2004
Review number: 1296
Katharine Kerr has long been an author I have enjoyed reading. She is best known for her long running Deverry series, which is basically standard fantasy, albeit well written and with some nice individual touches. I think that her other books, closer to science fiction, are more interesting, but now Snare brings that inventiveness back to a new fantasy world. (A slight caveat about what I've just said - this is fantasy with a fairly remote science fiction background, like Anne McCaffrey's Pern or Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover.)
The world of Snare is divided between four main groups, three human and one native to the planet. To begin with, we seem to be in fairly standard genre territory - the groupings appear to be loosely based on Earth history, with a Persian-like civilization opposed to barbarian steppe nomads. The Great Khan has become corrupt, ruthlessly destroying any threat to his power; at the start of the novel, a small group of cavalry offices set off across the steppe to find the only remaining survivor from the ruling family, who escaped the Khan's murderers. Then invent an excuse (investigating a business opportunity), but fail to allay the Khan's suspicions: he sends one of the Chosen (his secret police force) after them. So far, so similar to innumerable other novels. But soon things become, by almost imperceptible steps, different.
This is achieved through good writing. Most fantasy is pretty melodramatic, featuring a cast of heroes ranged against an unspeakable but one-dimensional evil (this of course follows Tolkien's example: orcs are not characterised beyond being vulgar and unpleasant members of a horde). By building the characters properly, by giving them realistic motivations, Kerr makes the reader simpathise equally with the Chosen and with those he hunts. Very little fantasy makes a credible attempt to humanise both opposing sides, and to do so necessitates something else unusual about Snare, which is that the situation is made more complex than a straightforward black and white division between good and evil. She does this by introducing interactions with the other groups already mentioned, who naturally have their own agendas. Her acheivement is not just unusual within the fantasy genre; very little fiction tries to make the reader sympathise with those who work for evil masters, no matter what the justifications they make for their actions.
Though as long in itself as many fantasy trilogies of earlier years, Snare is truly a standalone novel, as it amounts to a journey of discovery - both generally, as much of the hidden past of the planet is revealed, and for the individual characters. This is Katherine Kerr's trademark construction, and gives her novels a depth which is unusual in writing that seems to be typical of the fantasy genre, because her characters develop as they make discoveries, and the nature of their quest itself changes as a result. This complex novel is a top class piece of fantasy.