Like all Dave Duncan's fantasies, Magic Casement has a charm and vibrant sense of humor that helps to compensate for its reliance on archetypes and narrative predictability. Indeed, Duncan revels in archetypes. It's as if he sees plucky princesses and good-hearted stableboys and evil sorceresses and imps and goblins to be fantasy's necessary condiments; lose them and it's like (to evoke yet another cliché) a hot dog minus the mustard. Duncan's novels are like those whopping great baseball stadium hot dogs, loaded with all the onions, chili, relish, mustard, and trans fats your poor flabby body can endure. You know full well it isn't health food going in, but dear lord, if it isn't yummy!
Now that I've stretched that analogy to its limit, on to the novel. Magic Casement begins Duncan's A Man of His Word tetralogy. It's all about a good-hearted stableboy and a plucky princess and how they must save a kingdom from assorted nefarious baddies. The novel's first half has Duncan in top form, enjoying the characters he's created and lovingly piling on layers of personality. The setting is the remote kingdom of Krasnegar, perched on a rocky spar on the northernmost coast of the continent of Pandemia. It's king, kindly Holindarn, is near death, and has no male issue. Women simply cannot inherit, so it's a matter of great interest to several warring nations in Pandemia just who Princess Inosolan marries, as whomever rules Krasnegar controls its valuable northern port. But Holindarn has given Inos leave to follow her heart, and marry whom she wants, and is not willing to force her into an arrangement.
There's another reason Krasnegar is important to its neighbors. Holindarn possesses a word of power. In Duncan's world, magic can only be done by those who possess such words, and Krasnegar's earliest king was one of the only men alive to possess three, making him an inordinately powerful mage. Upon his death he gave each of his three sons one word apiece, though no one is sure why. There are many with limited magical power (who are still pretty powerful in a world where most people have none) who naturally covet a second. To have theirs plus Holindarn's would be quite a coup.
Rap is a sad-sack stableboy in Holindarn's service who nevertheless has been dear friends with Inos since childhood. And yet when he displays a gift for farsight, the ability to see not only objects hidden and in the distance, but events a short time before they actually happen, some around him wonder if he has a word of power. He swears he doesn't, but that doesn't stop him from being dogged by fear and suspicion.
Anyway, Inos is sent off to the luxurious estate of Kinvale to learn deportment and sewing and dancing all the other dull requirements of being a princess. We get some nice coming-of-age material here. Though she has been told (by no less than the manifestation of a god) to trust love in choosing a husband, she has no interest in the parade of noblemen she's introduced to...until she meets the enigmatic traveler Andor. Andor is romance-novel perfection himself, and he effortlessly wins the girl's heart. But we suspect, quite correctly, that there isn't something right about him — indeed, there's something downright dangerous.
The book's second half flounders in the pacing, as the story settles into routine fantasy-novel quest mode. Rap's journey from Krasnagar to Kinvale to warn Inos of the danger she and the kingdom are in never loses your interest, particularly when Rap ends up in the clutches of a horde of nasty goblins. It's an expertly constructed sequence, but it goes on a little too long. Also, since there is much about Andor that's dead obvious, obvious too are the developments that unspool in the story. We know that Rap will warn Inos, and that in her blind love she will not believe him. We know that the incident will represent the break from their childhood friendship and the irrevocable changes that come with adulthood, and finally, that something will occur to make Inos see the truth at last. As these plot points are checked off faithfully, I don't feel I'm heaping you with spoilers to point this out.
But there is still some excellent storytelling in the book's final chapters, enough so that its eventual reliance on a kind of ex machina ending is fairly forgivable. (That it's sort of set up early on helps.) We do get a couple of reveals that are quite clever indeed; it turns out there's even more to Andor than we suspected in the first place, for one. And there's a cliffhanger also made less annoying by our knowledge that we're reading the launch of a series. In all, Duncan displays enough rich talent and wit as a writer that his other writing hiccups — uneven pacing, surprises that aren't always surprising — don't take away from the enjoyment of reading him. His handling of the romantic aspects of fantasy is nice, too. He goofs on love-story tropes, yet still respects them. If it's traditional fantasy adventure with a bit of nudge-nudge wink-wink you're after, Dave Duncan is your go-to guy.
Followed by Faery Lands Forlorn.