I finished "The Iron Ring" by Lloyd Alexander the other day. It's about this Indian King who has a dream where he bets his life to a stranger and losses it. Thus begins his adventure to this stranger's kingdom to make good on his debt. On the way his ideas about karma and honor are deconstructed and he has to adjust what he's believed all his life.
The book has a great opening; the stranger arriving in extravagant style. The clashing of egos as the game begins and escalates is page turning. I was hooked by the time it ended. This is crucial for any book; if the reader doesn't like the first pages or (if they're generous) the first chapter, they're not going to finish the book.
The rest of the book is equally engaging. Tamar is an honorable and straight-forward king; his companions couldn't be more different and their dialogue is a wonder. One is a wise old scholar and another is an eccentric scholar of a vague age because of his mysticism. A third is a cowherd with a sharp tongue and a fourth is a mischievous monkey. Then there are others like a fellow king whose tragedy makes him a foil for Tamar.
The main action of the plot is Tamar's group aiding this prince against the villainous Nanusha who stole his throne. Despite being of the warrior's caste he follows none of its rules and this is the reason for the deconstruction mentioned above. Tamar follows all the rules as if they were physical laws; his repeated humiliation at Nanusha's hands shows how this is foolishness. Eventually his pragmatic love interest shows him reason; the only way to win is to beat him at his own game. Tamar emerges victorious by distinguishing the difference between honor and naivety.
I can only find one thing wrong with this book; the red gem that Garuda looks for and the reason he joins Tamar's group. At the end it's revealed to be a magic item that can kill anyone or raise the dead, and that the stranger cast it away because he felt himself tempted by it's power. There are two issues I have with this.
For the bulk of the story it is simply a beautiful rock. Also, aside from talking animals there are few fantasy elements up to his point. Adding such power to the gem at such a late point is like sticking a plane's wing on a car; it looks weird.
Why throw it away if it was so dangerous? A demon almost gets their hands on it. The internal logic would run smoother if the stranger had simply asked Garuda to find a gem that was already out there.
Other than that it's an outstanding book.
Trickster Eric Novels gives "The Iron Ring" an A.