Imperial Spy, by Mark Robson

Mark Robson – Imperial Spy
Simon & Schuster, February 2006, 373pp, £5.99, ISBN 1-416-90185-X

Mark Robson does good plot, but putting it on paper lets him down.

The plot follows straight on from his previous Darkweaver Legacy series. The new Emperor of Shandar wants to mend the rift with the neighbouring kingdom Thrandor that arose due to an unprovoked war during the earlier series, so dispatches his trusted young spymistress Femke as ambassador with instructions to strike up an entente. Unfortunately, as a by-product of the previous series’s events, Femke has made an enemy of arch-assassin Shalidar and no sooner has she arrived in the Thrandorian capital than she is framed for the murder of a pair of noblemen. Obviously she compounds the appearance of guilt by making a run for it, and she has the rest of the novel to find, prove and publicly identify the real assassin before the two states fall into war again.

The novel stands entirely alone, not relying on knowledge of the earlier books, and there were some pleasantly unexpected twists along the way. Like every good whodunit, all the key details are fully disclosed by the author and in plain view, but need a bit of detection to pull together. Even the involvement of Shalidar isn’t as clearcut as you might have expected. The full facts become apparent in a courtroom denouement that combines alchemy, Ally McBeal and Douglas Fairbanks, and there are plenty of strands left dangling for the next book in the series.

That’s the plot, when it happens, which unfortunately is after a lot of quite plodding set-up by a bunch of tin eared characters who frankly can only be distinguished from each other by their names. Apparently they turned up at the start of the novel looking for work, and the author told them what parts to play. They are good, or bad, or honest, or crooked, or bright, or dense, when and as the author tells them to be. They fall in love, or not, on a similar basis. Occasionally the author inserts his own voice so that we can be sure we know what’s happening to them. Meanwhile they say things like “OK” and “Maybe I’m paranoid” and “I’ve been framed.” Then there’s “Let’s go through the plan again” (twice), and, in a society that doesn’t have gunpowder or projectile weapons, there’s “staring down the barrel” and “in the line of fire”. And the great courtroom scene is conducted with exactly the same procedure and terminology that you would find in any American TV courtroom drama. Either it hasn’t occurred to Mark Robson that the manners and mores of the English speaking early 21st century western hemisphere are not the be-all and end-all of a decent civilisation, or he doesn’t care, or he doesn’t think his readers will.

Any good fantasy city nowadays has to stand up to Ankh-Morpork or New Crobuzon, with their heaving masses, a sense of history that stretches back for centuries, and smells that you can reach out and touch. The capitals of Shandar and Thrandor are about as antiseptic as Center Parcs.

So, if you want a fantasy with glowing writing, vibrant characters and settings that make you feel you’ve visited another world then this isn’t the one for you. But if you just want plenty of twists and turns and a decent level of complexity, then that is certainly Mark Robson’s strength and you could do worse than look here. But turn to page 83, which is when the first murder is discovered, and start from there.