David Duncan is a Canadian writer of fantasy
and occasional "soft" science fiction
. He was born in 1933 in Scotland. After graduating from the university he moved to Canada where he worked as a petroleum geologist. He started writing fantasy in 1984 and first published his novel A Rose Red City
in 1986, after which he became a full-time writer. He published most of his works as Dave Duncan, though he also used pen names Ken Hood and Sarah B. Franklin.
Duncan's novels usually feature a lot of World Building
. He tends to take well-established genre conventions and twist them beyond recognition without actually deconstructing them. Also expect Chessmasters
and Manipulative Bastards
. In fantasy settings there's likely to be a Deadly Decadent Court
, especially if there's more than a single court. In SF there would be plenty of Corrupt Corporate Executives
, though honest ones
aren't impossible too. Despite that Duncan's novels are more on the idealism than cynicism side
and the heroes are, well... heroic. More often than not.
His works include:
- The Seventh Sword series. A petroleum chemist dies from encephalitis and wakes up in Sword And Sandals world reminding of India in a body of a warrior on a mission from local gods. He knows nothing of the world other than the language and warrior's reflexes and sutras, he doesn't even believe the gods exist.
- The Reluctant Swordsman (1988)
- The Coming of Wisdom (1988)
- The Destiny of the Sword (1988)
- The Death of Nnanji (2012)
- Pandemia. A setting reminiscent of Roman Empire with the Romans equivalent and other peoples being standard fantasy races (as well as less common, like jotunns). Except that they differ no more than human races, if you ignore racial traits like frost resistance or Friend to All Living Things. And a magic system based on words of power.
- A Man of His Word quartet. A stable boy finds his destiny and becomes a king.
- Magic Casement (1990)
- Faery Lands Forlorn (1991)
- Perilous Seas (1991)
- Emperor and Clown (1992)
- A Handful of Men quartet. Alternates between a story of further troubles of the heroes of the previous quartet and their children and a story of a young aristocrat who barely survived the purge becoming a simple legionnaire. All the while an evil magician is taking over the world.
- The Cutting Edge (1992)
- Upland Outlaws (1993)
- The Stricken Field (1993)
- The Living God (1994)
- Omar, the Trader of Tales. A storyteller Walking the Earth collecting unlikely stories and occasionally ending up in some of them.
- The Reaver Road (1992)
- The Hunters' Haunt (1995)
- The Great Game trilogy. A college student is falsely accused of a murder and then nicked from pre-WW1 Britain to another world where gods are empowered by people's faith. There's a prophecy that states his name, but what he is predicted to do isn't quite clear. Contains a lot of reminiscences of the 19th century international and colonial politics.
- Past Imperative (1995)
- Present Tense (1996)
- Future Indefinite (1997)
- King's Blades. A Medieval European Fantasy setting where magically-empowered swordsmen serve as bodyguards to the king and his most trusted courtiers.
- Tales of the King's Blades
- The Gilded Chain (1998)
- Lord of the Fire Lands (1999)
- Sky of Swords (2000)
- Chronicles of the King's Blades
- Paragon Lost (2002)
- Impossible Odds (2003)
- The Jaguar Knights (2004)
- The King's Daggers
- Sir Stalwart (1999)
- The Crooked House (2000)
- Silvercloak (2001)
- A Rose-Red City (1987). Mera is a paradisal town outside time where people from various epochs live. Now and then they venture to various places and times on Earth to fight forces of hell. The novel starts with a WW2 bomber pilot and an Ancient Greek warrior going on a mission with rather hazy orders.
- Shadow (1987). SF, a Planetary Romance. A Lost Colony on a rather unusual tidally locked planet survives by using local giant eagles for transport. This led to formation of military aristocracy from people small enough to ride those eagles. A "Shadow" is a bodyguard of a king or heir apparent.
- Strings (1990). SF. Earth is rapidly becoming less and less habitable. The only hope is opening a portal to another planet, but all planets found so far aren't habitable. As the protagonist makes himself familiar with the portal project his grandmother runs, he finds there's much more to the project than the world knows.
- The Cursed (1995). A century ago a great empire has fallen, and the wars between its shards, or against numerous outside invaders, never seem to end. In addition "star sickness" is ravaging the land. It kills most of its victims and grants supernatural powers to few survivors. Those powers tend to be of Blessed with Suck variety. A woman who lost all her family to war or disease thinks she's got nothing to lose and shelters such a cursed girl. Which is against the law.
Dave Duncan's works contain examples of:
- Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: In A Handful of Men, the wife of the Imperor thinks her husband has died while they were all on the run from the Bad Guys. She ends up falling for (and marrying) his signifer and secretary Ylo. When Imperor shows up again, things are a bit awkward. Furthermore, the Imperor earlier told that man, that it's OK to love a married woman, and since her marriage is unhappy and she would rather be with him than her husband, the Imperor would ask her husband to give her a divorce. He keeps his promise. Ylo doesn't live long after that, thus the rest of the world never knows that her only child and Imperor's heir is actually Ylo's.
- A God Am I: Central theme in The Great Game. Any "Stranger" — a human in a parallel world different from his birthplace — can absorb power from human emotions. Some Strangers are more power-hungry than others. Zath, a relative newcomer to Vales took the role of a god of death and being very unscrupulous is gaining power too quickly. Normally "gods" gain power from being worshipped. Human sacrifices were forbidden, but for some reason the ban was not enforced on Zath until it was too late. An organization of more ethical Strangers is trying to overthrow him and even some other "gods" secretly help them. The hero basically becomes yet another god — Liberator — and then sacrifices himself to help kill Zath.
- Always Someone Better: At the start of The Seventh Sword series, Wally/Shonsu is unquestionably the best. In book 3 he meets other Seventh swordsmen, at least one of whom almost beats him. Wallie trains a lot and manages to stay the best. Then comes the big reveal that his protege, Nnanji, has gone from being a second level to being the youngest seventh in history. And when they disagree on political matters, Wally realizes Nnanji will easily best him. Making him the true destined wielder of the Goddess's Sword. Then Wally figures out the demigod's cryptic message about a student surpassing his teacher and understands that was the gods' plan from the start. Then the demigod gives him one last chance to kill his competitor, but Wally refuses. Then the demigod explains that in the mankind's best interests Wally should become the prime minister under this new emperor.
- The Atoner: In A Rose Red City. Everybody in Mera turns out to have some reason to stay there.
- Being Tortured Makes You Evil: Questioned in The Cursed, though not exactly lampshaded. The response is that this does indeed work if you don't only use torture, but combine it with a system of mental conditioning (the nature of which is never actually explained.)
- Body Surf / Grand Theft Me: In The Great Game Tion, a "god" of youth holds a yearly contest for the most beautiful and skilled youth in all the land. This youth "represents" Tion and hands out the prizes — and then disappears for several years. Unbeknownst to everyone else, Tion has been committing Grand Theft Me for the sheer fun of it. He is later shown changing bodies several times, and comments that male bodies "wear better". It is implied that after several years the people are brainwashed not to remember and released. One of the characters remembers the contest and has a chunk of his memories missing.
- Call a Smeerp a "Rabbit":
- "Eagles" and "bats" from Shadow seem to have little in common with their Earth namesakes.
- "Dragons", "llamas", "rabbits", "alpacas" from The Great Game are just the names Edward came up with to describe them to Earth inhabitants, somewhere between first and second novels. Locals use those names from the start because of Translation Convention.
- Can't Have Sex, Ever: In A Man of His Word the Sultan of Arakkaran, Azak, is cursed so that he can't touch a woman without burning her badly. Even after the sorceress who cursed him dies the curse is not lifted, cutting his wedding night short, marking Inosolan and leading to a lot of frustration.
- Can't Take Anything With You: Dimensional travellers in The Great Game series can't take anything with them to other worlds. This includes not only their clothes, but dental fillings, prosthetics, and possibly the contents of their stomachs. Good thing they can eventually regrow lost limbs.
- Viruses do travel to other worlds with infected people. This becomes a major plot point.
- The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: In King's Blades the Blades are highly skilled bodyguards. Attacking one defending his ward is classed as suicide.
- Creepy House Keeper: The housekeeper at the mansion the Impress and party escape to in A Handful Of Men talks to the ghosts and interprets and furthers their prophecies.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance / Culture Clash: Plenty.
- In The Seventh Sword series a pacifist from present day America is launched into a fantasy world with an iron age culture, caste system and slavery.
- Pandemian gnomes live in sewers and eat rotten food. Anthropophagi are surprisingly nice people — when they don't eat other humanoids.
- If A Rose-Red City didn't quickly heal its inhabitants (who come from all over the world history as well as the future) they'd all be crippled because of constant misunderstandings and conflicts. At least they can let off steam with little consequences. For one, Killer's constant come-ons are among the tamest things. (He's a Badass with four centuries of combat experience who swings both ways.)
- In The Great Game anything done by a god or by a god's order is OK. Zath abuses that rule sending Reapers who randomly slaughter people to give him more power. Other gods criticize this method for being wasteful.
- In The Seventh Sword also anything done by anyone on a mission from a god is OK. But this time gods are, for a change, superior beings that have mankind's best interest in mind.
- Though they have no qualms about killing people. After all, everybody is eventually reincarnated. In fact that is the reason outstanding people — "rare souls" — don't live long: they grow up, do some deeds nobody else could, then die to be reborn in another world where they are needed more. As the demigod of volcanoes puts it, to judge a god one has to know everything a god knows.
- Dirty Mind-Reading: In Cursed a family traveling in the country come through an area where an exiled telepath is hiding. Several erotic thoughts are revealed, although no names are associated with the thinkers directly. Other thoughts are revealed as well, and the patriarch decides that having a telepath living outside their enclave will be beneficial to both parties: the telepath would have food, clothing, etc., while the enclave would have a guardian to alert them to invaders or thieves.
- Deus ex Machina: At the end of A Handful of Men tetralogy, with a literal god and even justified. The heroes are in a totally hopeless situation. Thanks to his army of sorcerers with loyalty spells on them, the Big Bad has become the most powerful sorcerer ever, even stronger than demigods. Having been on the run from the Big Bad throughout the whole series, the heroes have finally been captured and are about to be killed. They end up being saved when two of the heroes achieve the Power Level above "sorcerer" without having a Superpower Meltdown by becoming a complete god instead of a demigod, and proceed to free everyone from the Big Bad's Mind Control sorcery. Normally gods Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence and simply stop caring about what happens to mere mortals, so nobody seriously expected a god to help; however, a freshly created god is expected and practically required to perform a major public miracle to announce its existence.
- Fingore: In The Seventh Sword series, thumbs are cut off as a way to remove a swordsman from office permanently. (Swordsmen act as police, judge, etc.) Though Nnanji prefers to give them a choice between the right hand and the head.
- Fish Out of Temporal Water: Wally Smith in The Seventh Sword. His knowledge of our world and lack of knowledge of his new world both get him into and out of trouble.
- Gods Need Prayer Badly: This is how it works in The Great Game trilogy. Any "Stranger" — a human from another parallel world — can absorb power of human emotions and faith, use it for miracles and eventually become a "god". Some places in a world make it easier for "gods" to collect energy, temples and shrines are usually built there. On the other hand, "gods" who stay at a single rarely visited holy place don't get any power and may end up in hibernation. Then there's two forbidden Game Breaker techniques human sacrifice and martyrdom.
- Heroic BSOD: The protagonist of The Gilded Chain has one because of a death he causes. He goes close to catatonic, and is passively suicidal.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Everywhere.
- Part of job description for a Shadow. It's enforced — if a master is killed, his Shadow is executed.
- Ditto King's Blades. In their case a spell that connects them will kill a bodyguard when his charge dies.
- Which makes executing a traitor without wasting a good Blade a serious challenge for magicians.
- The Great Game is about toppling (or at least seriously shaking) a religion where "gods" are quite real and powerful, but their opponents are powered by human faith too. Of course, many believers would die for greater good.
- More importantly, the Big Bad is using a forbidden method of powering himself by human sacrifices, and in a very wasteful way. There is only one method to get more power quickly: voluntary martyrdom, especially if martyrs are killed in a holy place. Edward ends up using this too. And then lets himself get killed too to give all the power to The Five to kill Zath.
- Another case from The Great Game: Dosh dies to resurrect Edward.
- In A Handful of Men Ylo, the central character, dies protecting the Impress.
- How Do I Shot Web?: In The Seventh Sword original trilogy Wally spends all three books learning to use the abilities given to him by a goddess with Shonsu's body. As the story progresses, he learns more and more, usually as the situations arise. This even applies to textbook-type knowledge, which actually works really well in the story.
- I Need No Ladders: In The Reaver Road when Omar goes to rescue the woman to be sacrificed.
- Jungle Opera: Seventh Sword, especially the original trilogy.
- Magic Enhancement: On Pandemia anyone who possesses a single word of power has their own natural talents enhanced to supernatural levels. More words mean more power, but knowing 5 words makes one a demigod, who either becomes a god or eventually burns alive.
- Merlin Sickness: In The Cursed, there's a disease that gives survivors one of several different kinds of supernatural abilities, all of which tend to be far more trouble than they're worth. One of these is the ability to remember the future but not the past. They can change the future by doing something that contradicts their memories, but if they do, they lose the ability to remember anything at all, leaving them with the mind of a newborn infant.
- Nested Story Reveal: An in-universe preface to Shadow says that the story is well-known on many colonies, but researchers failed to find a habitable planet that fits the description. Hinting that the story is just a work of fiction, but strongly tied to real tribulations of first colonies.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero:
- In Shadow. He won the civil war. He destroyed the oppressive state. He liberated the nice aliens. Now, without eagle mounts the colony is going to suffer. As his enemies pointed out, in the rebels' lands people eat meat very infrequently.
- In A Man of His Word Rap saved Fairies from being harvested for words of power by sending them into an inaccessible parallel world. As a result in A Handful of Men the Impire no longer has means to oppose the Big Bad when he resurfaces.
- Non-Indicative Title: The Death of Nnanji. He spends much of the novel recovering from wounds, but dies from old age in the epilogue, decades after the main story.
- No Ontological Inertia: Pandemia books feature a system of magic with four levels: Occult Genius, Adept, Mage and Sorceror. Mages and Sorcerors can change the world around them, but only Sorcerors' changes remain without the caster having to maintain them. Of course, sometimes there's little difference: "I could turn your head into an anvil. It would be a temporary anvil, but you'd be permanently dead."
- No Such Thing as Wizard Jesus: An implied aversion in The Great Game trilogy. All travelers from other dimensions automatically gain supernatural charisma and the ability to collect "mana" from worshippers to perform miracles. All "gods" are such "Strangers". It's pretty clear from the similarity of Nextdoor's languages to ancient Greek that many Strangers were active at the time of Christ and earlier, and the protagonist becomes a Messianic Archetype by the end.
- Not Helping Your Case: In The Seventh Sword Wally/Shonsu doesn't know the customs of the land he lives in. He often talks too much, which turns out to not help his case. In the end of the first book, he is asked about how he managed to survive an attack. He goes into detail about how he used a dagger and attacked two men at one time, then attacked a fleeing swordsman, chopping him down as he ran away. All of these actions were against the well-established rules, making judges pronounce him guilty.note
- One-Man Industrial Revolution: In The Seventh Sword Wally finds himself unable to speak of anything advanced — the language lacks the appropriate words and the warrior's vocabulary is too one-sided. When he does manage to explain something, the locals are wary of anything new. After meeting local "sorcerers", who already possess the secret knowledge of writing, firearms and spyglasses and are ready to learn new things, Wally muses that if he is captured, "He would be thrown into the nearest torture chamber and laid on the rack, producing a secret a day for the sorcerers like a battery hen, a one-man industrial revolution." While undesirable, it does fit his goal of developing this world. Later he finds less painful ways to collaborate with them.
- Our Gnomes Are Weirder: The gnomes of Pandemia are (like all the races of the setting) not a species but a distinct subrace of humanity — short, sharp-toothed, and with a cultural and physiological preference for living in dark and filthy environments such as sewers. They're actually fairly intelligent and reasonable people if you get to know them, but very few members of the other races are willing to make the effort.
- Place Beyond Time: Mera, the titular Rose-Red City. Also Portal Crossroad World and Good Guy Bar.
- Powered by a Forsaken Child:
- The system of magic on Pandemia is based on "magic words". Simply knowing them gives magical power, and each word increases that power. The hero, Rap, at the beginning of the series knows one magic word: his long and complex True Name, of which "Rap" is an extremely shortened form. Partway through the series, it is revealed that the magic words are the True Names of Fairies, who are tortured to force them to reveal them after which they die. Rap and his companions also accidentally discover that if someone who actually knows his own heart's true desire meets a fairy, the fairy is compelled to reveal its True Name to him — and die.
- There's also a contingency plan in case a powerful group of magicians appears — use the above described technique to quickly create enough sorcerers to beat them.
- In The Gilded Chain there's a remedy that heals all wounds, reverts ageing and the process of its creation leaves a lot of gold as a by-product. The catch? Whoever consumed it once must take it daily or die; the main ingredient is a freshly killed human; any magician will sense abhorrently evil magic in the remedy, the gold and the consumer.
- Prophecy Twist: Whenever there's a prophecy, there is one. Or more. For example, in The Great Game:
- Everybody assumed the prophecy foretold the birth of Edward. Actually his clothes didn't teleport from Earth and he didn't speak the language.
- Everybody assumed the prophecy foretold Edward becoming one of Tion's avatars (i.e. lesser "gods" who obey him, act in his name and generally pretend to be the same being as Tion). Actually he played Tion's avatar in theatre. And unknowingly collected some mana from the audience too.
- He is predicted to kill death. What does it mean? Heal people? Wrong, although he can do and does that. Prevent people from ageing? Not even close. Prevent people from dying? No. Kill the god of death? Well, Zath was justly afraid for his life, but still no. He distracted Zath long enough for other "gods" to strike him.
- Religion of Evil:
- Any worshipping of "gods" in The Great Game is this to a degree, since it's based on fraud. Though Zath with his Reapers who commit mass Human Sacrifices every night is unquestionably evil.
- In The Seventh Sword Wally gets the impression the cult of the river Goddess is a fake and it's all just about sacrificing people to an odd-looking rock and hoarding treasures. Fortunately, he is wrong: the dying did receive a fair trial (how fair the laws are is a different story) and gods do act in human interests.
- Replacement Goldfish: In Strings. Subversion interweaved with straight example hidden in plain view. John wasn't on best terms with his parents, didn't want to follow their footsteps and then died in a tragic accident. At first his son Cedric seems to be being prepared to continue his grandmother's work. Then it's revealed that Cedric may actually be John's clone, and truly a second attempt, or he may be his grandfather's clone kept for spare parts or worse and he keeps finding evidence for all 3 versions. In the end he finds that he really is the grandson and nobody's clone, but Abel and several younger guys are John's clones, and Agnes did raise Abel avoiding her previous mistakes. Anyway, Cedric and all clones leave Earth and Agnes stays with the transmensor.
- Ripped from the Headlines: As the author admits in the postscript, he unsuccessfully tried to work a superstring theory into Strings, making it almost an Artifact Title.
- Scry vs. Scry: Discussed in The Cursed. Those who see the future essentially go insane if they change said future. One oracle who's a supporting character had a friend who went insane this way, and the heroine is told that to truly understand him she should ask him whether he saw the future where the friend did nothing or the future where the friend went insane. (She never asks, allowing the author to avoid that bit of Fridge Logic.)
- Send In The Search Team: In The Seventh Sword original trilogy, Wally Smith must find out what happened with his predecessor Shonsu so he doesn't repeat the same mistakes Sonshu made. Although his assignment isn't specifically to find out what happened, it's central to the plot. Wearing the same body that once belonged to Shonsu, but having none of Shonsu's memories doesn't help.
- In the recent sequel The Death of Nnanji the whole mess starts with groups of warriors (essentially well-armed cartographers) disappearing and Nnanji and then Shonsu leading armies to investigate.
- Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The nature of prophecies is discussed at length in The Great Game. Edward concludes that prophecies are essentially the same as magic spells ensuring the prophecised sequence of events. They can collect mana from people believing in the prophecy and grow stronger over time. On the other hand if somebody manages to prevent fulfilment of even the smallest event the rest of the prophesy is voided.
- Single-Biome Planet: Usually averted, unless a very small portion of the world is shown, like in Strings. The biggest exception is The Seventh Sword where almost all cities seem to be located in Indian jungle on a river bank. On the same river.
- The fourth book reveals that those are actually multiple rivers, but since ships are often randomly teleported by Goddess, locals view all rivers as the same one that flows in random directions and has some impassable stretches and overland shortcuts. Before Wally Smith nobody tried to draw a map.
- The planet where Shadow is set seems to be nothing but steep mountains with hardly any flat areas, but this is just the small habitable part of a tidally locked planet. The glossary elaborates more on that.
- Space Opera: Strings, although most events take place on Earth and planets are visited briefly and are Lost Forever after the contact is broken.
- Spell My Name with an S: Pandemia has the Impire ruled by the Imperor, who is married to the Impress. Because they are Imps — the best organizers in the world and with the best-organized army.
- Starfish Aliens: The "eagles" in Shadow are sentient. They are deaf and communicate by gestures of a special organ (good thing their vision is very keen). Their intellect probably surpasses that of a human, but they are too set in their ways and won't try something that didn't work for their ancestors generations ago, even if important circumstances did change.
- Stock Weapon Names: Durandal in King's Blades. He'a a human and "Blade" is his occupation. Blades pick the names when they graduate. There were many Blades named Durandal before him and there will be other Durandals after he dies. To make that a Meaningful Name, he is absolutely loyal to the king, but he is prophecised to kill the king. And he does, when the king starts killing people to prolong his life. And Durandal is also partly responsible for the king getting that recipe.
- Summon Everyman Hero: The Seventh Sword. On Earth, Wally Smith is a chemist who dies of encephalitis. In the other world, he is given the body of the greatest swordsman together with all his professional knowledge. Said swordsman failed a mission given by the river goddess and as a result was allowed to die from concussion. Then gods enlisted a super-swordsman with an engineer's knowledge, since just a super-swordsman wasn't enough.
- Super Power Meltdown: On Pandemia learning "words of power" gives you magical abilities. The more words you know, the more power you have; four words make you a sorcerer with full-blown Reality Warper powers. Learning a fifth word gives you so much power that it will quickly cause you to burst into flames and die. Unless you love someone .
- Tap on the Head: In The Seventh Sword Wally tries this on a guard in the first book. However, the person he hit ends up dying (Wally doesn't know his own strength yet, among other things). Later he ends up on trial for various crimes, including this "dishonorable" killing. (After some Divine Intervention makes it clear that the Goddess doesn't want him punished, the death is ruled an accident; after all, if he had wanted to kill the guard, he would have used his sword, not his fist.)
- Theme Naming:
- Novels of The Great Game are named as tenses. Linguistics is important in the trilogy. But their other meanings do come into play (important past, anxious present, unknown future).
- Novel names in A Man of His Word are quotes from Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats.
- Trapped in Another World: In The Great Game anybody can accidentally fall into another world from some of his world's holy place (just drumming a correct rhythm is sometimes enough). Anyone who's in a different dimension than the one they were born in can absorb Mana from human emotions. Thanks to that characters in this situation tend to become heroes. At low levels, this just makes them really, really charismatic, and higher levels allow miracles up to becoming a Physical God.