This may seem an odd thing to say but when I watched the latest episode of Downton Abbey the other day I was inspired to re-read a work of fantasy I once came across that now seems to have been largely forgotten by the book-buying public. Dave Duncan’s Great Game trilogy is now about a decade and a half old but remains as bold, unique and sometimes shocking as it was when I first read it as a Law student many summers ago. The reason why Downton Abbey reminded me of Duncan’s books is because they partially share the same Edwardian/First World War setting of Julian Fellowes’ popular drama serial. Intrigued? Let me tell you more…
The first book in the trilogy, Past Imperative, opens with the main protagonist, a young man named Edward Exeter, awakening in a hospital in the summer of 1914 in a Britain poised on the brink of The Great War, with no memory of how he got there. He finds himself accused of committing a terrible crime and it is the investigation of this that reveals that Edward is at the centre of a conspiracy that spans more than one world – The Great Game of the Gods. Duncan’s series posits the breathtakingly simple but original idea that there are ‘deities’ on many worlds who are actually mortals that gain god-like powers by the mere act of crossing from world to world, dimension to dimension, through hidden portals located in fields, forests and other natural wellsprings of power. They can then gain more power by absorbing ‘mana’ – the spiritual energy which passes to them from their followers through the act of worship. These ‘gods’ are almost uniformly depicted as greedy and callous, valuing their devotees for no other reason than the mana – and consequently power – that they provide.
As well as Britain during the First World War, the main theatre of action in the trilogy is the Otherworld of Nextdoor, which has suffered the depredations of the gods and their Great Game since time immemorial. In this world Edward has a destiny: to become ‘D’ward Liberator’ – the one who is to bring death to Death, most powerful of the gods. Needless to say, whilst he is welcomed as a saviour by many on Nextdoor, there are plenty of people who do not want Edward to fulfill his destiny and soon his every move is dogged by murderous pursuers from two separate worlds. In the second book, Present Tense, the scale of the conflict escalates and the stakes get gradually higher as matters head towards a devastating conclusion in the final part of the trilogy, Future Indefinite.
The reason why I mentioned Downton Abbey at the start of this post is because, despite the fantastical elements of The Great Game, so much of it recalls the fiction of the early twentieth century, in particular writers such as Rudyard Kipling and P G Wodehouse. Duncan adapts his writing style expertly to evoke all the elements of a Britain awakening from the golden summer of the Edwardian era to the horrors of the First World War – the brave young soldiers going off to war (and likely death), the slowly disappearing distinctions of class and the country bravely trying to continue as normal despite the destruction on its doorstep. The brave and noble Edward is an appealing hero but he is often outshone by his older cousin (and partial crush) Alice, who is very much a clever, pragmatic and independent young woman, born before her time. The fantasy world of Nextdoor is just as well-realised, full of magic and darkness with an interesting and varied gallery of characters, perhaps most memorable of which is the crippled young musician Eleal Singer.
Do seek out Duncan’s novels – he’s a terrific writer and the opportunity to read a series which effectively transplants the cast of Downton Abbey to Middle-Earth is surely too good to pass up isn’t it?!