by Dave Duncan
Review by Sam Lubell
Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 1504002180
Date: 18 August 2015 List Price $16.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Irona 700 is a fun low-magic standalone fantasy adventure with lots of political intrigue and family conflict.
Dave Duncan is a fantasy writer who deserves a much larger readership. He writes fun, light fantasy adventures with a bit more thought than most, such as the A Man of His Word series, which has an unusual magic system and creative take on divine beings, the King's Blades series in which the second book contradicts the first, and The Great Game, a more serious take on alternate worlds and WWI. Fans of David Eddings and Alan Dean Foster will feel right at home with these books. Open Road Media is publishing much of his backlist and this new novel as well.
In the city of Benign, all 16-year-olds must present themselves at the temple of Caprice where the goddess will select one to join the oligarchy that rules the Empire--the Seventy. Irona is poor, uneducated, and from an "obscure, hardscrabble outport" that survives on fishing, so everyone is shocked when she becomes Chosen; there are hints that the priests' attempt to manipulate the selection of the candidate in front of her failed when another candidate fainted, throwing off their count. This launches Irona's political career.
Power among the Seventy is gained through alliances, patronage, and fulfilling duties such as mentoring new chosen, sitting in the various courts, and serving on boards. Irona soon learns how to play the game; when she serves on a court she is careful not to show too much mercy. While on the Navy board, she proposes a solution to their pirate problem based on her personal knowledge from helping on her father's fishing boat. The success of this plan makes her a hero and begins to build her reputation as a problem solver.
At first, Irona 700 seems to be a political novel, raising the question of whether the title character can hold on to her values as she gains more and more political power. But the book shifts when she is offered the governorship of Vult, the fortress guarding the source of evil magic. She accepts the position, thinking that staying in one place would allow her to satisfy her consort's desire for a child. However, once at Vult, her consort begins behaving strangely, forcing himself on her and then disappearing. When the boy, Podakan is born, Irona wonders if this is the child of her consort, or of some evil spirit. As the boy grows up, showing a refusal to be controlled or care about others, Irona continues to wonder. This struggle between mother and son becomes a major theme of the book.
Characterization is very strong in Irona 700. Although there is certainly some action with pirates, the Shapeless, and nonhuman lizard men, much of the book focuses on personal struggles, for power and control. Like President Theodore Roosevelt, who famously said of his daughter, "I can either run the country or I can attend to Alice, but I cannot possibly do both," Irona finds it easier to manage politics than her progeny. Irona also changes over time as the book covers 40 years.
Irona 700 is ideal for readers who enjoy political thrillers and family conflict. Irona struggles between her loyalty to her son and her fears for her country. This book is not for readers who want detailed, complex magic systems and god-like powers as the magic here is very low-level. It is also worth noting that this is a standalone fantasy that resolves everything enough to not need a sequel.