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Traditionally the Fantasy genre is one of black and white. On one side you have a noble band of adventurers seeking a true path to friendship and a quest. On another is a bunch of evil doers hell bent on bringing chaos and destruction to the world. For the most part the two sides also look the role with the goodies being full of hobbits and elves, whilst the bad guys are various forms of rotting zombies and orks. The problem is that there is no reason why a fantasy world would differ so much from ours, a baby faced man can be a killer whilst someone with defects could easily be the head of a charity. Like Joe Abercrombie showed in 'The Blade Itself' the fantasy genre shines when some of the polish is rubbed off its good versus evil façade. Martin Scott is another author to explore this and he uses an unlikely hero to solve cases in his world.
Thraxas returns in 'The Dance of Death' and once more the fantasy PI is in a bad way. In debt and living above a pub he finds himself in desperate need of work. Luckily then that the head of the Sorcerer's Guild needs him to discreetly find a jewel of immense power that has gone missing. Unfortunately, wherever this jewel seems to appear people end up dead! Thraxas must investigate against an ever increasing tide of bodies whilst also looking into allegations against his friend the female warrior Makri. Can he succeed before someone else gets their hands on the jewel, surely it can not be as simple as following the piles of bodies - I wouldn't bet on it!
I have read other books in the 'Thraxas' series so when I opened 'Dance of Death' I was not expecting a huge surprise. However, I was surprised as it seems that author Martin Scott had moved the series on and created a world and set of characters that proved highly interesting. The world of Thraxas is a cross between Tolkien's 'Middle Earth' and Pratchett's 'Discworld' all set in a historical interpretation of the Roman Empire circa Nero. This leads to a heady mix of traditional fantasy, humour and patches of historical accuracy. When Scott describes the workings of the city and the way the guilds work I was surprisingly entertained. It was interesting and amusing at the same time.
This sense of interest continued with the characters on offer in Thraxas. This is a world where drugs are rife and are starting to undermine human society. What is good is that our hero Thraxas is not above using drugs himself and in fact is a penniless drunk when we find him. He is a flawed character whose need for money is the only thing that gets him out of the pub. The dynamic he has with the part elf/ork/human Makri has really moved on in this book and is nice to read. They have a love hate relationship and it seems that they would do anything for one another, just grumbling all the way. When reading the parts that had them bickering I was also entertained.
So with an interesting location and characters what went wrong? I am afraid that the story just does not hold up. For the first half it rattles along well enough but the final half is all lead up to a fiery conclusion that just never comes. The entire books seems to whimper out and as a reader you are left thinking that 50 pages with the actually finale must have dropped out of the book. I enjoyed the journey only to discover there was no destination. This is a sin in the world of fiction imo and Scott should be held accountable. The real shame is that the characters are primed for a better story and I must assume that one of the later books in the series actually fulfils the promise shown here.
With no story thread beyond the half way point it is difficult to recommend 'Thraxas and the Dance of Death' to anyone outside lovers of the fantasy genre. As a fan you will enjoy the gentle micky taking that the book has about the absurdities of the genre. Unfortunately, these subtleties will be lost on people unaware of fantasy and its clichés. Despite its weak script it is clear that Scott has a love for his characters, with the central duo in particular of Thraxas and Makri coming across as funny and sympathetic. I look forward to reading further adventures; I just hope that there is more point to the next book.
Author: Martin Scott
Price: amazon uk - £5.20 (the series is being republished in hardback in 2009, my advise would be to grab a cheap copy from EBay or somewhere similar!)