Thraxas at War (Thraxas)
by Martin Scott
Review by John Berlyne
Baen Mass Market ISBN/ITEM#: 9781416555131
Date: 27 November 2007 List Price $6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
[Editor's Note: This review by John Berlyne was originally in our July 2003 issue.]
Having ploughed through some really fat fantasies of late, a new Thraxas novel is a real tonic. If you've read my thoughts posted here on the previous Thraxas books, [Thraxas, Thraxas and the Sorcerers] you'll know that I'm a big fan of Martin Scott's work. (If you're not convinced, see John's November 2000 interview - ed) . There is something in particular about his overweight, overbearing, highly cynical protagonist that I find particularly appealing -- though put in those terms, I draw the line at suggesting Thraxas is a kindred spirit!
The latest release in the series, is yet another beautifully crafted compact story. Coined rather aptly in Guardian review as "pulp fantasy noir" these novels tend to follow a now well established formula. Generally speaking, Thraxas complains a lot, gets drunk and/or stoned, eats and eats and eats, insults his close friend and sidekick, Makri and in the process of doing all the above, he manages to solve some heinous crime and save the city of Turai in the process.
Thraxas At War follows this formula closely, but with the notable addition of a far darker threat than any we've previously met in this series -- the Orcs are massing for war and Turai is woefully unprepared. Of course, there's always been talk of war with the Orcs -- Thraxas is forever going on about how brave he was in the last war, but this time, Scott imbues the threat with a real heavy imminence. The Orcs are coming, no doubt about it, and the outcome is assuredly going to be the destruction of Turai and the deaths of its inhabitants. As a reader, I didn't feel good about this -- I mean for all its murder and intrigue, I really like Turai and everyone in it! If it gets destroyed, how am I going to read about it in Thraxas novels?
Thraxas, in his guise of tribune of the people, is called to attend a war council. Defences must be organised. At the meeting, attended by various senators, counsels and sorcerers, Thraxas can only think about lunch. When food arrives, the break is inconveniently interrupted when a senior Prefect drops down dead, having apparently eaten a poisoned pastry. Fingers point to the Prefect's rival, Senator Lodius, and Thraxas is hired by Mrs Lodius to clear her husband's name. From experience Thraxas knows it is never a good thing to get involved with the corrupt officials of Turai. In fact, with the war looming, the timing couldn't be worse.
And so, we follow our man - complete with his hubris, his self-loathing, his self-deception, his outrageous appetite, indeed all the qualities that make him such a damn likable and hilarious protagonist -- as he prepares for war and, of course, solves the case. Other favourite characters too put in their various appearances -- Makri, of course, the axe-wielding, chain mail bikini-wearing half orc; the tavern owning barbarian, Gurd (notably talkative in this book!); Lisutaris, Mistress of the Sky, the dope smoking head of the Sorcerers Guild; Dandelion, idiot hippy barmaid; etc, etc. Scott has assembled a superb cast for this series and each has his part to play.
Above all, the tight plotting and supreme economy of Scott's writing remain the star of the show. That, and the author's wry observational humour, such as Thraxas' statements that "A man's office is for working, drinking and sleeping on the couch," or "Upper class women rarely cry about important things. It would show bad breeding. On the other hand, the may weep profusely if the hairdresser is late."
When so many over-complex, multi-volume fantasy series are causing bookstore shelves to sag and reader's purses to lighten, the unfussiness of the Thraxas books, with their direct first person, present tense approach and a magic system beautiful in its simplicity is something to be cherished. These novels go a long way to proving the adage that "good things come in small packages". Farcical, beautifully constructed and jam-packed full of laughs. Highly recommended.