D K Mok has moved away from the urban fantasy of her first novel, The One Tree (2014). Hunt for Valamon, as the name suggests, is in high fantasy mode, and it owes quite a lot to the backchat and irony style we are now conditioned to assume is how anyone with a sword and a dragon must carry on their heroic quest. (For a stirring but carefully non-specific feel for the novel, look at the book trailer here.) Mok plays nicely with the conventions. ‘As it turned out, the Plains of Despair were just west of the Stony Deserts of Agony, beyond the Moors of Brooding Desolation, past the Hills of Creepiness, the Meadows of Misfortune, and the Valley of Lost Shoes’.
This sort of thing has been going on since the glory days of Piers Anthony’s Xanth series and A Spell for Chameleon in 1977. Terry Pratchett is the other dominant author in this field, and the recent enthusiastic adoption of postmodern metatextual discourse for comic effect (please pardon the jargon) by film and TV screenplays has universalised the mode in mainstream entertainment, so that nerdy fantasy novels with lurid covers, ironic or not, are no longer so niche as they were.
There are no dragons in Hunt for Valamon, but there is sorcery, and a vast amount of fighting and strategic deployment of large armies. Valamon, the elder son of King Delmar, has been kidnapped by Lord Haska as part of the plan to overthrow Delmar’s Talgaran Empire. Delmar’s captain Lord Qara, and Prince Falon, Valamon’s younger brother, send out a champion to rescue Valamon, who is regarded as a bit useless but nonetheless important for dynastic reasons. The champion is chosen by a three-day combat, and the winner is accompanied with great reluctance by Seris, a cleric of Eliantora, Goddess of Healing. The empire’s economic structure is feudal and military, the technology is medieval augmented with sorcery.
So far, so very Dungeons and Dragons. The novel shows a little of Pratchett’s influence with message towers, and the routine extension of metaphors into fabulous silliness. Yet Hunt for Valamon is not a joyous book. It doesn’t exude glee for its own sake, or delight in the wordplay and invention that characterise the Discworld and Xanth novels. Its mood and tone are dark, because the plot is simply drenched in secrets and the characters’ untold back histories create a grim foundation for this ostensibly straightforward story of a lost prince in an unhappy world. The use of magic is restrained, because it is used as a tool of last recourse, not for everyday problems.
At the heart of the story is the very old and very present-day problem of might versus right. King Delmar, who has vast might, has some words to say about the right to a secure kingdom and how it must be maintained: ‘Courage can be mistaken for cruelty, but it is a distinction that leaders must make for the sake of their people’. The novel is packed with scenes of war and the tactics of war, but is ultimately against war, and against the leaders who sacrifice civilians for the sake of the empire. The focus is on Seris, Qara, Valamon, Haska, and Elhan the cursed but phenomenally powerful warrior who carries a secret destiny that will destroy her. Notice that Elhan is a ‘her’. The sex of the cast is pleasingly mixed, and pays no attention to the assumed gender of titles: this produces the novel’s most interesting effect, of reducing the familiar boring impact of too much testosterone on the battlefield, replacing it with a very new dynamic, which we have rarely seen before in heroic fiction. When women are heroes, and have the skills and training to fight, they don’t turn into men on the battlefield: they are something else entirely. Mok’s energetic deployment of women in armour as a normal part of society, without making a fuss about it, refreshes the genre, and ensures that Hunt for Valamon passes the Bechdel Test for fantasy fiction effortlessly. I also enjoyed the way the novel does not bore us with a pompous back story for the empire’s foundation, or where these countries are: we’re told what we need to know, and nothing else is needed. Plunge into the Talgaran Empire and enjoy the ride. On the 10-point Pratchett scale of novels guaranteed to make a long dull journey pass in a flash, Hunt for Valamon scores a confident 8.
D K Mok, Hunt for Valamon (2015, Spence City); ISBN 978-1-939392268, $9.95
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