Glenda Larke’s years spent as an Australian living in Malaysia are often reflected in her fantasy fiction through the use of non-stereotypical settings and postcolonial themes. Her world-building is complex, distinctive and believable, while her characters’ strengths and (intentional) flaws are both admirable and pleasingly infuriating. The Lascar’s Dagger, Book One of The Forsaken Lands Trilogy continues that tradition and is easily one of Larke’s best.
Saker is a priest, scholar and spy. Handsome and quick thinking, he is courageous and driven by a strong sense of morality which, in matters of the heart, lead him along paths that a hard-hearted or perhaps wiser man would leave untrodden. His story begins with a routine spying mission which is almost ruined when he is attacked by a barefooted sailor – a Lascar from the mostly unexplored islands on the opposite side of the world. When the Lascar disappears into a nearby canal, Saker unwittingly gains possession of his dagger.
Looking over his shoulder, Saker saw the unharmed sailor one last time through the opening of the shutter. He was outside the warehouse, hanging on to a beam of the overhang. He made some sort of hand gesture just before he swung up on to the top of the roof, as agile as a squirrel.
Impossibly, it spiralled through the air, its point always facing his way. It whirred noisily as it came, and the merchants below swivelled to follow its passage. Saker hurtled himself upwards on to the roof.
He heard doors crash open below, followed by shouts in the streets. He didn’t stop. He was already on the roof of the neighbouring warehouse when he heard the second pistol shot, followed almost immediately by the bang of an arquebus.
What follows is an entertaining and thoughtful tale of danger and discovery as Saker is sent to the royal court of Ardrone ostensibly as a spiritual advisor, but in reality as a spy. Immediately he finds himself embroiled in plots and counterplots as Lady Mathilda, a princess who longs to be king, proves herself to be both intelligent and conniving.
At the same time, Saker is blinded to the true nature of Mathilda’s dowdy yet outspoken handmaid, Sorrel Redwing. A woman with a tragic past and hidden magic, Sorrel outwardly disdains him. When the two interact, sparks fly. Saker cannot tell if she is his friend or enemy.
As always with Larke’s fiction, the setting is not simply a backdrop, but as much a player as the characters themselves. The Kingdom of Ardrone and the Regality of Lowmeer are both patriarchal societies separated not only by borders but also by their differing interpretations of religion, their divergent cultures and their leaders’ lust for power. In both regions, religion is linked to magic, while magic is an integral aspect of religion. Both are easily corrupted to support the needs of those who rule.
As a result, the novel’s conflicts and outcomes are logical developments inside the rich social tapestry woven around them. At the same time they are full of surprises that add up to a book that is difficult to put down.
Although I’d like to discuss the Lascar’s place and the post-colonial themes in this novel, I cannot do so without giving too much away. Therefore I will deal with them in my review of Book Two: The Dagger’s Path, which is due out in January 2015.