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Thirteenth Night St. Martin's Minotaur (Paperback), ISBN 0312976844

Jester Leaps In St. Martin's Minotaur (Hardcover), ISBN 0312241178

Like Crescent Blues movie reviewer Dixie Mitchell, I tend to rate a movie, TV series or play according to the sex appeal of its leading man. Case in point: age cannot wither nor custom stale the infinitely delicious memory of Southern Methodist University's 1972-73 production of Shakespeare's A Twelfth Night.

Book: Alan Gordon, Thirteenth night I can't remember a thing about the nominal romantic heroes, Sebastian and Orsino, but I still hear the wonderful baritone of Feste the Fool in my dreams. In the director's vision, the play revolved around Feste's hopes and schemes. By turns sexy and sly, Feste dominated the production, and it came as no surprise to me when the actor who played the fool landed a starring role in a major television soap opera.

Obviously, Alan Gordon saw similar leading man potential in the character of the bard's most well-developed fool. In Thirteenth Night, Gordon delivers a sequel to Shakespeare's play that brings Feste to center stage and uncovers the real reasons behind Viola's and Sebastian's shipwreck and subsequent marriages.

The ever-resourceful Feste serves as one of the top agents of the Fools Guild, an organization of fools, jesters and jongleurs dedicated to the peace and prosperity of 13th century Europe and the Middle East. Operating like James Bond's MI-5 crossed with the Watchers of Highlander, the Guild seeks to mitigate the worst excesses of potentates and prelates without ever appearing to interfere.

Fifteen years before the events of Thirteenth Night, Feste ensured the security of the northern Adriatic by defeating the schemes of Malvolio, an agent of unnamed governments seeking to undermine the stability of the region. Feste never thought to return to the duchy or Viola, the young woman he admired to the point of love. But three words from the mouth of a traveling merchant send Feste posthaste to the scene of Malvolio's averted crimes: "Orsino is dead."

Book: Alan Gordon, Jester Leaps In But that's not the worst of it. The circumstances of Orsino's death stink like an open privy. The competition between the first families of Orsino and the duke's relatives for the post of regent to the duke's son paralyzes the local government, endangering trade from Rome to Constantinople. The competent Viola, who Feste secretly expected to help, hides in her rooms, emerging only rarely to visit her husband's grave. And someone leaked the Guild's top secret passwords, compromising every agent on the continent.

Jester Leaps In, the next book in Gordon's series of medieval mysteries, builds on the events of Thirteenth Night and the consequences of those compromised passwords. France wants to start another crusade. Venice wants to turn a profit from that crusade by exploiting the ambitions of various pretenders to the Byzantine throne. And the Guild can't do anything about any of it, because all of its agents in Constantinople have mysteriously disappeared.

To call these books mysteries may limit their potential audience. They read more like action adventures. Gordon spins high-horsepower, cliff-hanging tales packed with desperate situations and hairpin plot turns. He makes remarkable use of medieval itineraries and histories to provide cinematic glimpses of 13th century Venice, Constantinople and other contemporary locales. In addition, Gordon's fine ear for dialogue invites the reader to cast the novels' many roles. Imagine a historically inclined Ian Fleming with a crush on Emma Peel.

Feste and Viola emerge as real, fallible and very lovable. So lovable that it drives me wild when Gordon conforms to the medieval tradition of eschewing descriptions of his characters. I want to see these people, dang it. Don't tantalize me with the hint that Feste hails from northern Europe and may stand taller than most of his peers.

Even worse -- don't gloss over the times when a character's appearance takes a completely unexpected turn. In Jester Leaps In, a woman of Feste's acquaintance reappears in his life, tonsured as a monk, but only Viola (in dialogue) comments on the woman's outré hairstyle. Feste notes the lady's eyes. Come on! I never met anyone -- man or woman -- that polite, especially if he happens to be looking down on the bald spot in question.

Compared to the absence of personal description, the slight reliance of Jester Leaps In on the events of Thirteenth Night proves only a minor hiccup in the reader's enjoyment of the story. However, those without a vivid memory of Twelfth Night may want to read both books with the play near at hand. Better yet -- read all three.

Jean Marie Ward


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