Well, it’s been a while since I last read a novel from the 1980s. So, I thought that I’d take a look at Dave Duncan’s 1987 novel “A Rose Red City” today.
This was a novel that I rediscovered whilst sorting through several of the book piles in my room a week or so earlier. If I remember rightly, I originally found this novel in a second-hand bookshop in Brighton during the late 2000s and bought it because of the wonderfully ’80s cover art.
So, let’s take a look at “A Rose Red City”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in the utopian city of Mera, a walled city surrounded by evil demons where people lead eternal lives of joy and leisure. Local librarian Jerry Howard is busy binding a book when his old friend Gervasse visits him with a message from the city’s oracle.
Apparently Jerry has been chosen to travel over into our world and rescue a future citizen of Mera. The oracle advises him to take a stout friend with him, so Jerry enlists the help of Killer – a muscular, handsome warrior from Ancient Greece.
When they leave Mera, they cross a strange shifting landscape for a while – before eventually finding a mysterious deserted cottage where they decide to stay the night.
Meanwhile, a tired woman called Ariadne is driving through the night in America. She is trying to reach the Canadian border with her children before her ex-husband catches her and takes the court’s paternity order into his own hands. However, the border town she is looking for doesn’t seem to exist and, after accidentally wedging the car in a ditch, she decides that it would be best for them to seek shelter in a nearby cottage……
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it isn’t perfect, it’s a fairly interesting mixture of Bangsian fantasy, ancient mythology, suspenseful horror and thrilling drama.
Imagine a cross between the light-heartedness of John Kendrick Bangs’ “A House-Boat on the Styx“, the cheesy optimism of the 1990s TV show “Sliders” and both the mythical horror and old-fashionedness of something like Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle’s “Inferno” and this should give you a vague idea of what to expect.
Interestingly, whilst this is a fantasy novel about a quest, it is a bit different from the more traditional epic fantasy of Tolkien etc.. And is, instead, more of a story about myths, legends, monsters etc… with occasional magic-based elements. And, although this can make the story a little bit random at times, it is a refreshing change from more traditional epic fantasy.
Even so, this story does contain some wonderfully cheesy “Conan The Barbarian”-type scenes involving battles with ancient demons and mythical beasts. Likewise, although this novel mixes both the ordinary world and more fantastical locations, the rural settings in the scenes set in America mean that it isn’t really an “urban fantasy” novel in the modern sense of the term.
This brings me on to the novel’s horror elements, which work surprisingly well. Although this isn’t really a horror novel, there is a stand-out scene of suspenseful horror during an early segment of the novel where all of the main characters are trapped in a cottage surrounded by demons, who are trying to both trick them into inviting them in and to drive them insane.
This claustrophobic part of the novel works really well and it is vaguely reminiscent of novels like Dennis Wheatley’s “The Devil Rides Out” and ’80s horror movies like “The Evil Dead” too. Likewise, there’s also a fairly suspenseful scene involving a certain well-known maze in ancient Crete, that also contains some good horror elements too. Even so, this novel is more of a fantasy thriller than a horror novel.
The novel is also a story about truth, morality, second chances and imperfections. But, whilst the novel does contain a fair amount of nuance and compassion, this element of the story does also come across as somewhat pompous, old-fashioned or patronising at times.
Even so, this pompousness also lends the novel a little bit of unintentional comedy because, whilst the author is perfectly happy to include bloody battles, random nudity, disturbing backstories and descriptions of the free love culture of Mera, he seems to have a rather prim aversion to using any four-letter words (which are often either implied euphemistically or replaced with hilariously old-fashioned phrases like “I really loused up” etc..).
In terms of the characters, they’re a reasonably interesting bunch of people – all of whom have flaws, tragic backstories and various quirks. The main characters are an unlikely group of people thrown together by circumstance, which allows for a lot of interesting character-based drama. Plus, although the main character (Jerry) comes across as a bit stuffy and formal, the other characters (like Killer, Ariadne and Carlo) are a bit more interesting.
In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is written in the slightly more formal and descriptive style that you would expect from a novel of this vintage. Whilst this helps to add atmosphere to the story, it can also slow down the pace of the story quite a bit. Even so, Duncan’s writing style is something that you’ll get used to after a while.
As for length and pacing, this novel is a bit of a mixed bag. At a gloriously efficient 227 pages in length, this novel is that wonderfully rare thing – a short fantasy novel 🙂 On the other hand, the focus on utopian locations and suspense in the earlier parts of the story, in addition to the slightly formal writing style, mean that this novel may be a bit more slow-paced than you might expect. Even so, the story does become a bit more fast-paced during some later scenes though 🙂
In terms of how this thirty-two year old novel has aged, it has aged both brilliantly and terribly. On the one hand, the scenes set in Mera have a wonderfully timeless quality to them and both the story’s horror and thriller elements still remain compelling to this day. Likewise, the story is just as atmospheric today as it probably was in 1987.
However, although the slightly formal writing style adds some extra atmosphere, it does sound a little old-fashioned when read today. Likewise, whilst it is really cool that the novel features a heroic bisexual character (eg: Killer), the story occasionally takes a slightly sneering and old-fashioned attitude towards this element of him. Whilst this novel certainly isn’t the most narrow-minded 20th century novel I’ve read, it does contain some fairly patronising and dated attitudes during a few brief moments.
All in all, whilst this is a reasonably compelling fantasy thriller novel, it is also a bit random, cheesy, slow-paced and old-fashioned at times. If you want a better 1980s fantasy novel about alternative worlds, then read Clive Barker’s “Weaveworld” instead. Still, if you’ve already read “Weaveworld”, if you’re a fan of John Kendrick Bangs, if you want something a bit more random and/or if you just want to read a short fantasy novel, then “A Rose Red City” might be worth reading.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.