THE RED KING by Victor Kelleher


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From the author of Baily's Bones (1989--a suspenseful ghost story grounded in Australian history), an entirely different sort of fantasy about freeing an imaginary kingdom from a vicious, wraith-like monarch who keeps his subjects in thrall by threatening them with a terrible red death. Timkin is an acrobat, an agile, compassionate slave whose kindly old master dies of the dread disease early on. Timkin herself survives, thanks to another traveling showman: mercurial, enigmatic Petie, who nurses her back to health with the help of a magic seedpod and promptly shackles her again with the slave collar from which she was just freed. The two trick their way into the Red King's presence, are captured as Petie had planned, endure adventures within the tunneled volcano that serves as the King's prison, and finally vanquish the King and escape. Though Kelleher describes this adventure with some verve, it's essentially a dungeons-and-dragons sort of scenario. More interesting is the ambivalent character of Petie, who may actually be as greedy as he seems; who often treats Timkin like a slave and tricks her cruelly by saying that she holds her freedom within herself (which is true, literally--it turns out that he hid the key in the wound that lingers after her illness), yet is genuinely fond of her; and is certainly a trickster to the end. He's not a villain, but there's a mixed message about subservience here that should disturb feminists and provoke healthy debate.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1990
Page count: 176pp
Publisher: Dial