The Great Game begins in pre-WWI England, where young Edward Exeter has just left boarding school for the last time following his graduation. He's an orphan (of course) and he's soon at the center of a murder investigation. Meanwhile, on the coterminous world of Nextdoor, Eleal Singer wants to get over the mountains and get to the festival of the god of art, but a long line of prophecy has ensured that she's delayed. The prophecy? Amongst thousands of verses is one that has the entire pantheon of Nexdoorian gods in an uproar: That one called the Liberator will bring death to Death.
Where the Great Game excels is in the treatment of its prophecy and some of the other classic fantasy tropes - the orphan main character, the quest. Prophecies are often shorthand to the reader of what exactly will happen, robbing the text of any drama, but here it's an active participant. Breaking any one part of the prophetic chain invalidates the rest. In the end, Exeter is doing his damndest to fulfill parts of the prophecy by active intervention. Moreover, the task - to kill the god of Death - is shown to be all but impossible. The tension comes from finding out exactly how Edward's going to do it.
That's because the gods of Nextdoor are awful. Duncan pulls few punches here. One of our earliest clues as to just how bad they are is the temple of Ois, where supplicants are forced into what is essentially ritual prostitution. It's kept suitably in the wings of the reader's viewpoint, but this also brings me to one of my few qualms with recommending the series: There's an odd, perhaps old-fashioned, cavalier nature to mentions of rape and the fortunes of war associated with it. It's a bit distasteful, and it's clearly meant to be. It's also not couched in the typical bleats of "but realism!" that accompany unpleasant things that remain author choice in other works. Here, it's because of how the gods get their power.
Strangers, those from our world (or others) that cross over gain power simply by their existence. Many of them set themselves up as gods and codify systems of worship that bring them ever more power. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the pain, the greater the mana. Giving a few coins isn't worth much, but the more the better. Sacrificing animals provides more power. Terms of service net more, and Ois demands the aforementioned ritual prostitution. Self-harm gives more. The god of Death, though, has cornered the mana market by blessing his followers with the ability to kill with a touch when he wills it. Human sacrifice, at the cost of the sacrificer's humanity. Death is more powerful than all the rest of the pantheon put together.
The book is also well-tied in with ideas of Imperialism and colonization. This would later become a big influence on my own work, but in the Great Game, it's inescapable. One faction on Nextdoor is made up of British colonial elites, living high on the backs of the natives. Edward himself is the son of a colonial governor. Even the name of the trilogy is a reference to the way the UK and Russia carved up Central Asia.
The Great Game Trilogy is not Tolkien fantasy, and it's interest is furthered by being so well-settled in WWI England for the (lengthy) sections that occur in our world. The character development takes a bit of a back seat to the world and plot in this one, but Duncan's writing is the real star: engaging, stylish, fun Edwardian prose, like that of C. S. Lewis, just dripping with the narrator's voice. And, there's a pre-grimdark quantity of moral ambiguity and darkness that's like a shot to go along with the pleasant, mild pace and ruminations. The Great Game is a fun, thoughtful, and unique read with a style all its own, and enough cleverness to revive even the jaded fantasy reader's interest.
D. Thourson Palmer is the author of the free, weekly web serial RAZE (dthoursonpalmer.com/raze) and fantasy novel Ours Is the Storm. Check out the revised second edition of Ours Is the Storm on Amazon or at dthoursonpalmer.com