Science Fiction & Fantasy Review, No. 6, July-August 1982, p. 23.
Gotlieb, Phyllis. Emperor, Swords, Pentacles. Ace, NY, April 1982. 299 p. $2.75, paper. ISBN 0-441-18067-1.
Though at first glance you might think otherwise, this is science fiction. A peculiar collection of humans, including telepaths, genetically created amphibians, mystics and bureaucrats, join forces with two intelligent cats (one telepathic) and a number of other odd creatures to protect Spinel-alpha. Spinel-alpha, a very ethical crustacean, is Emperor of Qsaprinel, and for reasons unknown some very nasty people are attempting to take over his planet. Unlike most novels of this type, the conflict centers around alienation and morality rather than blood and guts. Also unusual is Gotlieb’s handling of the large cast: in spite of several unpronounceable names (Fthel, Ungruwarkh) and a complex plot, the characters are clearly defined and always interesting.
The novel’s structure is…novel. Instead of chapters the text is partitioned as if the story were a tarot reading. Since tarot has nothing to do with the plot, this creates more confusion than clarification. Far more successful is Gotlieb’s technique of rendering telepathic dialogue. Thoughts read like thoughts, conversation is conversational, and the reader never has to puzzle over which is which.
About the only major failing is the packaging. The unattractive cover claims the novel is a sequel to A Judgement of Dragons (Berkley, 1980) but other than a few characters, the two works have nothing to do with each other. After reading the title and back cover copy, many would guess it to be an occult novel, and this is also misleading. If you can get past those barriers, Emperor, Swords, Pentacles proves to be a solid, entertaining work. — Lawrence I. Charters