Rating: 2.75 stars
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Dale O’Toole makes his living as Diederik, the Demon Knight of Denmark, the dark jouster at Renaissance festivals across the country. When a jouster is injured and the Colorado fair needs a replacement, Dale figures it is a chance to see another part of the country while earning a living, and promptly heads north. Dale loves the traveling lifestyle, jousting, and his horses. But being constantly on the move leaves little time for romance or a long-term relationship and Dale is lonely.
Austin Renfro works in a pirate gift shop at the Colorado Ren fair, along with his best friend, Jasmine. His home life is a wreck with a boyfriend who is constantly drunk or stoned and always abusive. When Austin spots the gorgeous jouster, he sees his perfect man, but their first meeting is nothing but embarrassing as Austin trips and falls into Dale’s horse. But a renaissance fair is a small village and the two men are constantly running into each other and an attraction builds between them.
But problems abound at the Colorado fair. A gay hating knight is making problems, and the rumors are rampant that someone is out to harm the jousters. With so much stacking against them, can Dale and Austin’s build a relationship that lasts past the end of the fair?
I was really looking forward to this story for a number of reasons, the first being the author. My first introduction to A.J. Marcus was through Animal Magnetism anthology and his story On An Eagle’s Wing. I found that story to be well researched and equally well written. The second reason would be the subject matter. I love jousting and Maryland’s Renaissance Festival is a great one to attend for jousting and all things of similar in nature. But The Jouster’s Lance disappointed me at almost every level.
There are so many issues here it is hard to know where to start. But perhaps let’s go first with the characterizations. It’s hard to put a finger is just what the issue is with them. They just don’t click, either as real people or imagined ones. Maybe it is the dialog that pops out of their mouths. Whatever it is, it makes it almost impossible to connect with them. Dale starts off fine at the beginning of the story while he is still in Texas but once he has arrived in Colorado, his character just degenerates into a shadow of his former self. And Austin is just a mess from the beginning. The only people I enjoyed in the story were Jasmine, Austin’s best friend, and the Lady Catherine, a performer on the circuit. Both women are the best things about this book, and neither is a main character. Maybe this will give you an idea. Here is Austin on his abusive boyfriend:
The first few messages from Rick were the basic “where are you” type. Then they got more demanding. Austin stood there listening to them while waiting in line for a steak on a stake with fries. He knew he should call his boyfriend back, but right then he didn’t want to deal with the drama. Rick had obviously forgotten he was working this weekend, but that was Rick’s pattern: anything he didn’t want to remember, he didn’t. It was one of several reasons that Austin had been hoping he would just go away with as little drama as possible. From the tone of the last two messages, there was going to be drama aplenty when he got home. He could hope Rick was passed-out drunk when he got home and stayed that way until Monday morning, so he could deal with the whole thing Monday evening when he got home from the print shop he worked at during the week.
By the end of that paragraph, my eyes are glazing over and there are pages and pages of this. But this is the least of the book’s problems. I don’t know whether it is intentional or not, but there are so many plot threads in play here and only one of them is resolved by the end of the book. All the others are left hanging to the reader’s frustration. Are these red herrings? Or were they just forgotten along the way? Or will they be addressed in future stories? Hard to say but these multiple plot threads that just trail off give the story a disjointed feel that never goes away. It’s like going through a haunted house at Halloween time. You keep expecting something to jump out at you during the tour, and if nothing does, you feel cheated. Plus as the realization sets in that nothing spooky is going to take place, you start to notice just how tacky the tour is, with cheap effects and bad paint jobs. That is exactly how you will feel by the end of The Jouster’s Lance. When the plot fails to congeal, everything else starts to pop out at you, from the poor layout to the sad structure.
And it’s not just dropped story threads, but the characterizations as well. A man nicknamed Chipmunk is featured heavily in the story and Dale makes a big issue of calling him Chip because Dale thinks the nickname is demeaning (no reason for that is given either). I waited for some expansion on that topic or other pertinent information on Chipmunk to appear later in the story. But it never did. Marcus creates situations where loads of questions swirl around this character but again, they go nowhere. This happens constantly throughout the story, with characters, with so called ominous events, with the subject matter, with all sorts of things. I couldn’t figure out if Marcus needs a storyboard or if this is intentional, but either way it doesn’t work.
While I cannot speak to the authenticity of the insider’s knowledge of the workings of a Renaissance festival, I can speak to the issues involving the horses. While the general care is correct, when a fire occurs and Dale leads a horse into the fire, I was astonished to say the least. And by the actions that follow. It is unrealistic and head shaking unbelievable. Dale, just coming off major shoulder surgery, lifts a man his own weight onto a horse (spooky and frightened a few paragraphs earlier) as the fire rages around them. Sigh. Uh, no. Trust me, that wouldn’t happen, not the lifting, not the horse standing still, nothing. And the ending of the book will just garner tons of eye rolls.
I can’t figure out if this book needs a ruthless editor to trim away all the extraneous plot threads and condense it into a sharp little story or if it needed to be expanded to incorporate all the missing elements back into the narrative to give us a satisfying novel. Either would have been preferable to the final product as it is here.
Based on A.J. Marcus’ short story in the Animal Magnetism anthology, I will seek out other stories by him. But I’d give The Jouster’s Lance a pass. I don’t think even jousting aficionados will enjoy this one.
Cover Art by Brooke Albrecht. I actually love the cover. The model looks exactly like the whip artist I saw at the Maryland Renaissance Festival last year, and the jousting graphic is marvelous.