Saturday, 18 November 2006

The Assassin of Gleam, James Norcliffe, 2006

THE ASSASSIN OF GLEAM James Norcliffe, Hazard Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, 2006, 207 pages, paperback, NZ$29.99
ISBN 1-877270-99-7

Deep and dark:
On a planet with two moons, the lost city of Gleam is ruled by the tyrant Markgrave. As the turn of the century approaches, his hereditary reign is threatened by the bubbling-up among his cowed subjects of a prophecy about a Maiden who will bring them freedom. This could have been just another cardboard fantasy cliché but instead James Norcliffe has breathed life into his characters and situations. The result is a skilfully told story, with a dark mood and a sense of urgency.

It is clear that a master storyteller is at work from the first sentence, where we read that Gleam’s streets are “gripped in a fist of darkness.”

Down these mean streets run the rash and impulsive student Tobias, his quieter, deeper sister Johanna and their Uncle Hugh, a musician. In most fantasies these three would become the unlikely liberators, but this novel is more sophisticated and the trio are running towards a grimmer and more convincing fate. Tobias is faced with the ultimate temptation: to choose “death over life and power over love.” These are terrible choices, and the decision Tobias makes has equally terrible ramifications.

It is not giving the plot away to say that The Assassin of Gleam is a novel about power, one that is extremely realistic about human nature and politics. As the tavern-keeper Mother Grayling warns, the ruler who replaces the Markgrave would be “no sunrise but another jackal who sooner or later would…bare his fangs.” Johanna suddenly finds herself at the centre of a complex struggle involving the mysterious Brotherhood, a group of sinister scholars, while Hugh’s only ally is Dragonet, a runaway jester. Meanwhile the Markgrave believes that to kill an idea, it first has to be made incarnate.

The bleak world of Gleam has the convincing quality of a complex dream. Even minor figures are well-drawn. Many of the characters have hidden depths and none are stereotypes. Their very surnames are reminders that Norcliffe is also a poet. His narrative achieves an almost mythic power, while the pace of the tale never flags. Small but important revelations keep occurring right to the last chapter. This is a masterly crafted and readable novel. The best news about this handsomely-produced volume, written while the author was Robert Burns Fellow at Otago University, is that while it has a perfectly satisfying conclusion, it also leaves the way open for a sequel.
Or a series.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand, on July 29 2006

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