Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Double-Edged Sword by Sarah Silverwood (Pinborough)

The Double-Edged Sword by Sarah Silverwood is the first book in The Nowhere Chronicles. Sarah Silverwood is a pseudonym used by Sarah Pinborough for her young adult writing while publishing her adult writing, primarily horror, under the latter. The eerie and haunting elements of horror bleed over into The Doubled-Edged Sword, creating a mysterious and otherworldly work counter-balanced with humor and memorable characters.

The Double-Edged Sword is told primarily from the point of view of Finmere Tingewick Smith. Finmere has just turned sixteen and is quite uncertain of the world and his place in it. Before he realizes what is happening, he is drafted into a quest to prevent the end of not only his world, but numerous others. Along the way he makes a few new friends and becomes even more confused about his place in the world.

The Double-Edged Sword is a smartly written novel. The writing and its characters are exceptionally inclusive-- creating personas that draw the reader into the narrative. Finmere himself is vague, lacking hard lines. Fin has no clear background, no clear future, and no clear present. On this blank canvas, the reader can insert themselves. Finmere is more apt to be frustrated, confused, and/or lonely. These are elemental feelings that will connect to the reader, creating a window in the lovely, off-kilter London of The Nowhere Chronicles.

Surrounding Finmere is a motley cast of characters providing a nice cross section of a multi-cultural London. This diverse cast also provides the reader a side-kick. If the poor, rough around the edges Joe isn’t to your liking, then Sarah Pinborugh provides the blue-blooded Chris as well. Joe and Chris don’t exist solely as side-kicks, as they quickly develop into complex characters-- especially compared to Finmere-- with believable motivation. Benevolent, closed mouthed and mysterious Ted provides a stabilizing force.

The Double-Edged Sword revolves around an organization named The Knights of Nowhere. The Knights act as a policing force between The Somewhere and The Nowhere. The Somewhere is the world of the reader. The Nowhere is the closest parallel world. The Knights are able to travel back and forth between the worlds, keeping the peace and keeping The Nowhere a secret to folks in The Somewhere. In the events of the story, the Knights are suffering an internal schism precipitated by St. John Golden, the current leader of the Knights. St John Golden is attempting to manipulate the Magi’s Prophecy to transition the Knights from a policing force into a political force, granting Golden rulership over both worlds. In doing so, St John Golden sets events in motion that could unravel all known existence.

The Nowhere is what makes The Double-Edged Sword shine. It is here that you feel a more direct link with the creative spark within Sarah Pinborough. The Nowhere is a lush, haunting, and strange creation. Sarah’s penchant for horror leaks into The Nowhere, providing rivers of madness, misty borders of nothingness, and beguiling appearances. The Nowhere itself is a temporal patchwork of districts mirroring London as it existed in time-- past, present, and future. One district may be medieval, another modern, and another still the future. These districts also have an animus of sorts, resisting anachronistic changes (such as the installation of lights into the medieval district). The inhabitants of each district are tied to it, unable to travel easily to other districts without suffering debilitating effects. Inhabits of The Somewhere, such as the Knights, can travel anywhere, as they are not tied to any specific district.

Tying everything together is Sarah Pinborough’s understated prose. It is neither mawkish or condescending to the reader as can happen with young adult fiction. Instead it is subtle and supple, showcasing realistic and distinct dialog. With such a diverse cast of characters, their speech and mannerisms could easily have become muddled. Instead, Sarah ensures that each character has a unique identity-- not just through description but with how they speak. When not displaying linguistic gymnastics, Sarah Pinborough’s words drift towards the poetic. In particular, they reinforce the melancholic and mournful tones of the novel, yet are tinged with hope. Her writing strengthens good scenes into memorable scenes. The ending sequence in Postman’s Park is especially poignant. Once finished with the novel, I actually opened it again to re-read those passages.

The Double-Edged Sword is an excellent book. It is a young adult book that is both smart and mature, speaking up and not down to the reader. It substitutes gentle elements of horror for raw violence to provide a dark tone without gritty realism. It is possessed of haunting symbolism and real emotion, avoiding the trite and cliche. It is a memorable and refreshing book that I highly recommend to all readers of fantasy, not just young adult readers.

Memorable Quotes:
"‘No,’ she whispered, and even in her despair, there was such beauty and strength in her voice that it dispelled the darkness around her. ‘No, you will not have your answers.’"
"Surely a Nowhere nobody would never insult one of the Knights?"
"‘You put the stories into my blanket?’ he eventually breathed. ‘You brought me here in it? Wrapped in the Stories?’"
Image Source: Hachette
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 9780575095311

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence is the first book in the Broken Empire series published by Ace. Prince is a deceptively simple book, incorporating many familiar fantasy cliches. Lulled into bland familiarity, Mark Lawrence ambushes you with his decidedly un-simple writing-- incorporating memorable characters, setting, and voice.

Prince is told primary through the point of view of Jorg Ancrath, the titular Prince, with regular flashbacks to Jorg's youth. The flashbacks serve as preparatory moments, providing backstory and motivation for the next major plot push. Prince of Thorns is a tale of revenge. Jorg's mother and siblings were murdered in front of him during his youth while he watched impotently. As his father, King Olidan Ancrath, refused to seek revenge due to political expedience  Jorg seeks it himself. By doing so, Jorg unknowingly launches himself into a larger plot, becoming as entangled as he was on the hook thorns as he watched his mother and siblings brutally butchered. Only this time, he is butchered by hands unseen; his childhood, his free will, and his memories are all mutilated.

It is this damaged boy that the reader follows. Without guidance he becomes cold, immoral, and impulsive. Combined with his raw intelligence, you are left with a dangerous and unpredictable character. Yet, Mark Lawrence couldn't leave well enough alone and throws more fuel onto the fire. The fuel is a band of degenerate outlaws that Jorg affectionately calls his Brothers. They are outcasts, adrift-- so they think-- seeking that which their desires drive them to seek.

What makes Prince of Thorns so engrossing is that Jorg isn't simply a cold-blooded killer. Mark Lawrence carefully lays down the motivation for the character. You get to see the events that build this broken creature. You experience a whirlwind mix of sympathy and revulsion. Jorg at his core is simply a child lashing out. He is a child who says "no" and simply refuses to obey.

What is particularly masterful is how Mark Lawrence tortures Jorg's character. In particular, the unseen players in a larger world-wide scheme-- the Broken Empire's resurrection-- have ensnared Jorg in their schemes. So even when Jorg thinks he is fighting back and denying someone else's desires, he finds instead that he helped them. Worse, Jorg finds that his own memories have been compromised, his own desires for revenge stolen. Every step of the story, Jorg reaches a goal, only to have it pulled out of his grasp. This drives Jorg to the point of insanity. His mind keeps folding in on itself, questioning who he is and what he wants. In Jorg's view, the entire world is his enemy that has taken from him everything, so he will take everything from the world.

Matching Jorg's unsettling character is Mark Lawrence's interesting take on a post-apocalyptic future. The world is green and beautiful but littered with the artifacts of a past age. Things familiar become twisted. Castles are in fact re-purposed concrete bunkers. 'Magical' swords are actually high technology relics. Christianity still thrives, if subtly changed. Yet, for all this quasi-realism, magic exists. It is a warning. For all the familiarity, the world is as broken as Jorg, and things are not as they should be. It is delightful and suspenseful.

Wrapping this whole beautifully damaged packaged is Mark Lawrence's voice. An author's voice is generally workmanlike, seeking to be unobtrusive, letting the plot, setting, etc. stand on its own. Occasionally, an author is gifted, such that his prose ascends functionality and becomes artistry-- a character unto itself. With such purple praise I declare Mark Lawrence an artist. Without his skill, I doubt Jorg would have been nearly as enjoyable a character.

The sarcasm, uncertainty, and pain within Jorg is found within the word choice and sentence structure of Prince of Thorns. Just as the characters love the ancient Classics, so too does Mark Lawrence. In particular, he uses the Latin-inspired device of delaying the main unifying clause to the end of the sentence. What opens as praise will quickly close as a barbed insult. This sharp poke jabs both the narrative's recipient and the reader.

I loved Prince of Thorns. It is simply a great novel. It is very well written, simple in structure and slavishly devoted to its characters. I also love it because it is a testament that cliches do not automatically make for a bad book. Mark Lawrence's writing elevates these cliches-- sometimes directly and sometimes with a nod and wink to the reader. It is gratifying to see an author breathe new life into the genre by showing what can be crafted from such mundane and familiar materials. Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence is worth a read for any fan of speculative fiction. It is one of the best books I have read in recent memory.

Memorable Quotes:

"The corpses posed as corpses do."
"Her voice flowed through the octaves, an echo of every kind word and every promise fulfilled."
"We paper over the voids in our comprehension with science or religion, and make believe that order has been imposed."

Penguin: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Image Source: Harper Collins
Review Copy: Self Purchased
ISBN-13: 978-0441020324