“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Queen Of Kings

I had a review of Alex Barclay’s YA novel CURSE OF KINGS (HarperCollins Children’s Books) published in the Sunday Business Post a couple of weekends ago. It ran a lot like this:
“Envar was a land of twelve territories and its northeasterly was Decresian.”
  Alex Barclay’s career as an author of adult crime thrillers began with Darkhouse (2005), a novel set partly in Ireland and partly in New York. In recent years she has set her novels, which feature the FBI agent Ren Bryce, entirely in Colorado; but from the very first line of her latest offering, the young adult title Curse of Kings, we find ourselves even further from home, albeit in a place and time very far removed from the mean streets of the mystery novel.
  That’s not to say Curse of Kings wants for mystery, as the main storyline centres on young Oland Born’s quest to discover his true identity. We first meet Oland working as a servant for the vicious usurper Villius Ren, a sadist who murdered his friend and the former king, Micah, some 14 years before the story proper begins. In a pacy opening, Barclay establishes Oland’s plight as he is physically and verbally abused by Villius Ren and his cabal of dark knights, in the process dropping significant hints that Oland was not born into such a lowly status. Soon Oland finds himself in mortal danger, and he flees the kingdom of Decresian in search of the truth about his destiny. On his travels he meets Delphi, an unusual young woman who is herself in search of answers about who she is; together they find the wherewithal to face down the cruelties of Villius Ren and overcome the many trials they are forced to endure.
  There well may be a PhD out there for some enterprising student interested in discovering why so many Irish crime writers have published young adult fiction: Alex Barclay follows in the footsteps of John Connolly, Cora Harrison, Adrian McKinty, Colin Bateman and Eoin McNamee in writing for a younger audience. Perhaps the appeal lies in leaving aside for a while the crime genre’s demands for gritty realism. Here we find ourselves in the quasi-Mediaeval world of Envar, a misty, mythical place of castles and black princes, swords and shields, noble blood-lines and uncompromised morality. The back-page blurb references Tolkien but the book reads much more like an adventure-fuelled variation on Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, or the minor stories of the Arthurian legends.
  That said, the novel has very contemporary resonances. Oland Born is essentially a bullied child who refuses to accept his fate, and Barclay eschews the easy option of allowing him access to magic, spells or fantastical devices that might ease his passage to freedom. Instead Oland and Delphi are forced to rely on their wit, courage and determination to succeed, which renders them all the more vulnerable and accessible to the reader, and enhances our engagement with their struggle.
  Or struggles, rather. Events unfold at a very rapid pace, and the story is jammed to the margins with incident, reversals of fortune, surprise reveals and confrontations. Indeed, there are times when the adult reader might be a little overwhelmed by the relentless buffeting Oland and Delphi experience, although the target audience of younger readers will very probably remained gripped throughout.
  The first of a planned trilogy, Curse of Kings is a handsome achievement, not least in terms of its creation of a new world that comes fully terra-formed with a unique history, religion, geography and civilisation. There is darkness here, and monsters both animal and human, but Barclay never loses sight of the fact that our folktales and fairytales were constructed to facilitate our instinctive desire to believe that no matter how bleak our lives appear to be, a better world is ours for the taking. – Declan Burke
  This review first appeared in the Sunday Business Post

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