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The Orokon by Tom Arden

Review by Mike

The series (available in UK only):
The Harlequin's Dance (1997)
The King and Queen of Swords (1998)
Sultan of the Moon and Stars (1999)
Sisterhood of the Blue Storm (2000)
Empress of the Endless Dream (2001, paperback release planned for November 2002)

High Fantasy

SYNOPSIS (from the book jacket)
The god Orok gave to his five children crystals of surpassing beauty, to be embedded in a circle on the Rock of Being and Unbeing, whence had sprung the gods, the earth and all its peoples. This circle, known as The Orokon, ensured the harmony of life, until the dark god Koros plucked his crystal from the Rock and plunged the world into chaos and despair.

Ejland, northernmost kingdom of El-Orok, has been torn apart by civil war. The true king, Ejard Red, has been betrayed by the treacherous Archduke of Irion; after a long siege, the king has been captured and his throne seized by his twin brother, Ejard Blue.

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.

It seems to be more or less mandatory for fantasy authors to set the story in a pre-industrial world, or in a universe so heavily influenced with magic that technology becomes superfluous. Arden has chosen an era that is little explored in fantasy - the 18th century. At least that is the case with Ejland and Zenzau, where the story is set in the first two books. You immediately recognise the good old British Empire there. Later on we get to see more of the world. Unang Lia, with it's strong Arabian flavour, has you expecting Aladdin to turn up any second. However, for the islands of Wenaya I could not find a good match in the real world, even though they seemed to be placed in the vicinity of an "American" continent.

The peoples of these countries descend from the followers of Agonis, Viana, Theron and Javander - four of Orok's children. They were placed in different parts of the world by a decree from Orok himself at the beginning of the Time of Atonement, while those who followed Koros were doomed to wander all over El-Orok as outcasts, shunned by all other peoples. Not that everbody else get along splendidly - all five cultures have their own interpretation of the creation myths, favouring “their” god, and religious fanaticism is quite common.

Arden takes his characters so seriously that they are all listed at the start of each book. It’s a nice reference, and I found myself going back to check the list more often than strictly necessary. Only about ten characters are truly important to the story.

This does not mean that you could forget the rest of the cast. Arden has put considerable effort into giving them all at least one distinguishing characteristic, often something that is gross and/or funny. Sometimes he goes too far; the result of the special characteristic is that the person becomes one-dimensional. Generally I would say that the bad guys (and those who are just a little naughty) are more interesting than the heroes.

There is certainly much in this series that deviates from most High Fantasy, but the plot is outlined according to the standard formula. Actually, when you strip it down to the most basic level, what remains is a young, inexperienced hero that has to gain objects of immense power and use them to stop an evil God. Now that concept is exactly what made David Eddings a rich man.

This does not mean that you have it all figured out after fifty pages. There are a number of interesting surprises cleverly hidden in the story, and more than once I went "ahhh, I should have known that!" Unfortunately, the plot quality drops towards the end. The story becomes confused and the cool plot twists cease to make perfect sense.

Even though the plot lies firmly in the fantasy realm, Arden's writing style is very different from what you are used to. I'm not really sure how to describe it, but occasionally it felt like I was watching a play rather than reading a book. Does that make sense?

The number five strictly defines the format - five books with five sections each, and one separate quest in each book. However, Arden uses a number of different solutions tell the story. Letters are common, especially in King and Queen, while a lot of the background information in Sisterhood is revealed through a play.

Something that is evident throughout the series is Arden's obsession with the grotesque or even macabre. All bodily functions are thoroughly exercised in a very descriptive manner. Bodies are mutilated and not even death stops the abuse. It's definitely not rated PG-13! This is often mixed with attempts at comic relief, which is not always a successful combination. In the beginning I didn't mind it, but towards the end of the series it takes over too much of the story, maybe because Arden didn't have enough material for the last book.

Up to the middle of the third book I thoroughly enjoyed this series. There was something fresh and unusual about the writing and the plot was intriguing. Then the ending of that book turned out to be totally out of character with the atmosphere Arden had worked hard to build up in the first two books. Sisterhood redeemed him somewhat, but Empress turned out to be... well, not a disappointment perhaps, but at least not up to my expectations. It created more mysteries than it solved, and that was not what I had waited five thick books for.

The Harlequin's Dance - 3.5 amulets
The King and Queen of Swords - 4 amulets
Sultan of the Moon and Stars - 3.5 amulets
Sisterhood of the Blue Storm - 3.5 amulets
Empress of the Endless Dream - 3 amulets

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