The Baker's Boy

by J. V. Jones
Aspect, pb, 552 pages, $5.99
ISBN: 0-446-60282-5

A Man Betrayed

by J. V. Jones
Aspect, tpb, 504 pages, $12.99
ISBN: 0-446-67098-7

Master and Fool

by J. V. Jones
Aspect, tpb, 532 pages, $12.99
ISBN: 0-446-67096-0

I have to confess that the first thing that caught my eye about The Book of Words series was a marketing gimmick. Warner Books sent me A Man Betrayed along with a perfume-sample card and vial labeled "Rat Oil." While I try not to pay too much attention to the way a book is hyped, rat oil was an irresistible lure. And once the series got going, Jones's writing kept me reading for its own merits. The Book of Words (as the series is titled) is an above average high fantasy trilogy, with a lot of interesting quirks to liven the not always predictable plot.

The first book starts a bit slowly, mostly from new-writer roughness. There are too many characters introduced, and too many different points of view. The series revolves around at least five major characters, depending on how you're counting, and spends time in the viewpoint of many others. Many early scenes run too short or too long. But the underlying story is sound, and Jones gains increasing control of her characters and viewpoints as the book goes on.

One successful device Jones uses throughout the series is that of conveying information through discussions between two semi-comical soldiers, Grift and Bodger. Their interplay allows Jones to disseminate important information without cluttering up the narrative, and the humor in the two soldiers' scenes increases the impact of the dark events that surround them.

The title character is Jack, an orphan who opens the series as a much-abused adolescent baker's apprentice in a castle seething with intrigue. Jack is taken on by the court intriguer-in-chief and covert wizard (overt wizards are put to death) Baralis, who hopes to take advantage of Jack's ignorance and illiteracy to use him to copy information without understanding it. In the course of his efforts, not only does Jack find himself learning to read, he also begins to manifest terrifying magical powers that force him to flee the palace. Since Jack's magic potentially conflicts with Baralis's plans for world domination, the older wizard attempts to hunt Jack down.

Jack is not alone in his flight. He encounters Melliandra, daughter of the kingdom's richest nobleman, along the way; she is attempting to evade marriage to the king's evil (and over the course of the series, increasingly mad) son, Kylock. Although Melli and Jack are soon separated, their fates are clearly intertwined, and they may or may not be in love with each other.

In another part of the world, a troubled knight is set on a hopeless quest by a wise man, who hopes to take advantage of an ancient prophecy to head off a looming world war. A number of other people, including the vain and corrupt archbishop of the world's richest city (who is a surprisingly complex and not-entirely-unsympathetic character), and an island of seers who spend their lives in torment in order to have prophecies leached out of them by an order of priests, are equally concerned with the prophecy. In one of the series's nicest and most effective touches, there are a number of competing, garbled variations of the prophecy floating around, leading to dramatically different interpretations. From the beginning of the series, there's not much doubt that Jack is the boy referred to in the prophecy, but who will find him first--and what use he will be put to--remains a matter of some contention throughout.

Surprisingly, A Man Betrayed is the strongest book of the series. I can't remember the last trilogy where the strongest book was the middle one; usually the middle book is weaker than the others, too full of linking information, often with no real beginning or ending. In this case, however, Jones really hits her stride in the second book. A Man Betrayed opens strongly, giving enough information to avoid losing readers without becoming an obvious recapitulation of the first book.

Much of the action in A Man Betrayed takes place on the roads to the city of Bren, where events are rapidly converging. Bren is a powerful duchy whose succession is about to be thrown into dispute, with the Duke of Bren, his beautiful but dangerous daughter Catherine, Kylock (by now a militarily ruthless and entirely mad king), Baralis, Melliandra, and her father (as well as a number of others) all having a hand in the intrigues which swirl around the strategically located city's seat of power. By the end of the book, the forces of evil are entirely in the ascent, which isn't necessarily a problem, except that nothing has really been resolved, either. For all its good beginning and strong narrative drive, A Man Betrayed doesn't quite stand on its own without the other two books in the trilogy.

In Master and Fool, the events spoken of in the prophecy are finally brought to a head: temples fall, the world is at war, two characters are revealed to have had an incestuous relationship, and all of the other expected third-book-of-a-trilogy events come to pass. Although the action remains strong, the third book is less satisfying than A Man Betrayed; there is a strong sense that the heroes will triumph, even against all odds--and the odds are awfully long. For all the length of the book, the endgame seems hurried, and the final events seem to happen improbably quickly and easily given the harrowing events of the previous 1400 or so pages.

The convenience of events in the closing chapters is made up for somewhat by the bittersweet ending, which echoes the way Jones has treated her characters all along. Although the main threads of the story are resolved, the characters' lives are not. The heroes and heroines do not neatly pair up, even though some of them want to. The right people don't all end up together; sacrifices of state will force them apart yet again, part of the price of their successes. In the midst of the horrible events which have torn apart their worlds as well as damaged all of them--physically and emotionally--a “happily ever after” ending would be trite and inappropriate. Jones treats her characters with respect, and doesn't take the easy way out. Wounds do not heal instantly in life--real or imagined--and lives should not be frozen in time just because a story has ended.

This was the first essay I wrote for Warren Lapine's Absolute Magnitude (originally Harsh Mistress , from the Heinlein novel) magazine. Unfortunately, I found I just didn't have time to write many more book reviews after this. Partly I'd written them to help start my writing career, partly to force myself to make time to read for pleasure, but as my life in publishing got busier, reviews eventually went by the wayside.
iews eventually went by the wayside.

First appeared in Absolute Magnitude, 1996

Copyright © 2004 by Leigh Grossman