In the village of Irion the crippled boy known as Jemany Vexing, bastard son of the beautiful but frail Lady Elabeth, lives in the dilapidated castle with his dying mother and his frustrated and fanatical Aunt Umbecca. Ela - seduced, it is believed, by a common soldier during the siege - is a social outcast, while her dashing brother Tor is a traitor, wanted for crimes against the false king.
Unable to walk, Jem is condemned to a wretched half-life, until he meets a mysterious dwarf...and with his new strength comes a new friendship, with the wild girl Catayane. The Archduke's grandson and the daughter of a blind hermit discover that their love holds the secret to incredible mystical powers.
As the horrors of the Bluejacket regime begin, so Jem becomes aware of his greater destiny, for his is the quest to find and reunite the five crystals of The Orokon. But he is not the only seeker: the evil sorcerer Toth-Vexrah has his own plans and will let no one stand in his way.
The Harlequin's Dance is a quiet book, which has similarities with Gormenghast in terms of setting and social commentary. Arden uses an 18th Century setting, rather unusually, in this, the first of five novels in The Orokon sequence. This enables him to bring in concepts such as novels, muskets and other technological advances that add a different feel to the book in comparison to traditional fantasy.
Also unlike traditional fantasy, although this novel is on the surface a quest for five crystals, in The Harlequin's Dance, Jem doesn't even set out on his quest - or know about it - until the last few pages.
This is a very different style of fantasy, with a fair amount to recommend it. Arden writes with gentle humour, biting satire and ghoulish horror at key moments. The characterisation is sharp and the villains are truly monstrous.
So why do I count this a fail in my book challenge? Probably more because it wasn't my style of book than because it was bad, I would guess, but I do think Arden's novel does have some large flaws.
One of these flaws is the prologue, which details the legend of the god Orok, his five children, and the crystals he bequeaths to each. We saw the crystals scattered, heard the familiar trope that in a time of great adversity the crystals would be brought back together by an unlikely hero, and prepared ourselves for a mighty quest story. And then... nothing happens at all for the course of approximately 430 pages out of 441 pages concerning this quest. It's as though the prologue was attached to the wrong book - instead The Harlequin's Dance was a sort of fantasy version of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. If the prologue hadn't been included I feel as though I might have enjoyed the novel more - as it was I spent most of the time waiting for the "real" story to start instead of appreciating the slow unwinding of Jem's life.
Another flaw is that, even accounting for the naturally slow pace as Arden introduces his character and sets the scene, The Harlequin's Dance is *nothing* but set up. You recall in that summary above hearing about the evil sorcerer? Well, he makes nary an appearance in this novel at all.
The characterisation is excellent, as I mentioned, but this doesn't help when roughly four fifths of the characters are despicable and worthy of disdain and/or hatred. Maybe Arden wrote them a little *too* well, but I didn't actually want to spent much time with them - and Poltiss was by far the worst offender (a character who grows from a boy that murders cats with his own hands to a rapist and murderer - not pleasant at all).
My last point concerns some of the, frankly, disgusting passages that Arden included - I don't know if they're in the novel to shock or to really emphasise the hideousness of the villains, but they sickened and jarred me out of the story to the point that I dreaded what he would say next. Passages such as:
"He rucked up his nightshirt, taking aim at the chamber-pot. The acrid spurtings missed their target, spreading instead in a steaming pool across the patterned rug."
"Polty was so starving that he fell upon the gruel like a ravening beast, slurping and guzzling and scooping with his hands. He lolled back, almost grateful, only wishing there had been more. For a time, until the foul mixture had worked through his guts, and a fresh load of squelching liquid filled his breeches."
disgusted me. If they were in isolation I would probably have been able to cope, but there were many more situations like this.
In summary, I would class this as definitely NOT a diamond waiting to be discovered. It was slow, tiresome and misconstrued by the cover blurb, with only a few redeeming features. I am distinctly unlikely to pick up the second volume, which constitutes an extreme fail when considering the first novel of a five book sequence. Disappointing.
Have any of you read this novel? Would you dispute my review? Did you find more to enjoy?