First professional review

by | Jun 20, 2022

I’ve gotten some beautifully written reviews over the years, but I wanted to share this one from Bill Thompson, the retired Book Editor at The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier, where we were colleagues. I wanted Bill as a reader from the beginning, because he’s famously well-read and insightful — and not specifically a fan of the epic fantasy genre per se. Getting on his reading list isn’t easy — he stays busy with his new gig as a critic on the Kirkus roster — but agreed to read Ta Nupa. That promise came with this warning: “The guy writing the review won’t be so much Dan C’s old chum – such reviews are valueless in the strict sense – as a nasty-ass old-school critic.”

Bill gave Ta Nupa four stars out of five. Here’s what he posted at Amazon:

 A propulsive meld of genres, reimagined

Reviewed in the United States on June 19, 2022

Ta Nupa defies pigeon-holing. It is a propulsive meld of quest fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, espionage fiction and suspense set in an indeterminate time (part Medieval, part industrial), albeit with notable diversions from genre conventions and a measure of wit.

You can make up your own narrative rules and embroider all you please if you remain true to your story’s inner logic. D.C. McElroy does, and his tale does not disappoint.

In this, the first installment of the “Season of Spies” trilogy, he offers a richly imagined creative surround, intricate socio-political, ethnic and religious constructs, nicely delineated characters, and some pesky moral quandaries.

McElroy deploys a curious mix of archaic speech patterns and modern American idioms in his dialogues, but he makes it work in ways reminiscent of the late Roger Zelanzy, whose style also is echoed in fight scenes shot through with banter. If compelled to compare McElroy’s novel to a spiritual sibling, it might well be to any of the first five books of Zelanzy’s “Amber” series, especially “The Guns of Avalon” and “The Hand of Oberon.” But where Zelanzy often delivered the action tongue-in-cheek, McElroy plays it (mostly) straight. Derivative he is not.

Naturally, the plot has only begun to unfold in Book One, but the author pulls back the curtain just enough to have us wanting more. There are machinations aplenty, but wed to fresh ideas.

Although brothel waif-turned-soldier Antin Hrabar is a solid protagonist, and the linchpin of the story, it is the chief supporting players who most intrigue at this stage. There’s Boksin Stavator, Antin’s mentor-adjutant, a man of manifest abilities, strategic grasp and keen judgement that belie his non-commissioned rank and who, one suspects, always keeps a few cards up his sleeve.

The enigmatic member of the cast is Suderas Hrabar, Antin’s erstwhile brother, a cryptic monk-mystic who may know more of the workings of time and fate than is healthy. There is also a puppet master behind the scenes: Neva Marisch, brothel madam and Antin’s surrogate second mother, a clever and subtly powerful schemer whose grand plan may or may not come to fruition – rather like a Bene Gesserit in “Dune.”

Ta Nupa is exceptionally well-visualized thanks to densely furnished details and descriptions that are as useful as building blocks as they are set pieces. Now and then these descriptions are rendered vividly. An example, chosen at random:

“From the Hall of Zarjarshem, where each pilgrim lit a souvenir candle in the eternal holy flame, the broad, bricked switchbacks of Pilgrims’ Progress Avenue curved around each man-made waterfall along the descending Stepped Stream. Each waterfall poured into a shallow rectangular pool. Each pool reflected its own Zarjarshem fire-altar.

“The result was an elegant series of reflecting basins, each mirroring an eternal flame, that redirected a natural creek artfully down one side of the stunning, carefully terraced Ta Nupa Crater. At the bottom, that stream made its final, dramatic plunge into the underworld beneath a modern stained-glass-and-masonry-dome that protected the subterranean ruins from the elements.” (pg. 94)

McElroy has the soul of a critic as well as a novelist, so there’s little wasted motion and no dawdling about. While some might find the book too dependent on dialogue, that dialogue is crisp and almost always involving. It moves the story, and a certain amount of exposition is necessary to set the stage for installments to come.

Tougher, at times cynical (agreeably so) and flecked with wry humor, Ta Nupa is what so few books in the general realm of fantasy manage to be: unfailingly smart, mature in their assaying of human foibles, and artistically satisfying. If McElroy is trying to reimagine the form, he is off to an admirable start.

Bill Thompson, author of Art & Craft: 30 Years on the Literary Beat.