A Modern Grail
By Cheryl Morgan
Amanda Hemingway is not a name youíll find mentioned in previous issues of Emerald City, but that is because she has been in disguise. Iíve reviewed three of her novels, written under the pen name of Jan Siegel. Prosperoís Children? Yes, now you remember. Quite what machinations of PR departments led to her abandoning the Siegel pseudonym and claiming those books for Hemingway I do not know. And perhaps, as with the making of sausages, it is better not to ask. Hemingway, however, she now is, and she has a new series under way.
The Sangreal Trilogy is something of an odd beast. It has nothing at all to do with King Arthur other than the appropriation of certain magical artifacts. Secondly the first book, The Greenstone Grail, reads much more like a Young Adult novel than the Prosperoís Children series, though it is not marketed as such. As rather too many fantasy books do, it begins with a special young boy finding a mysterious artifact in a long-lost ruin, but I would rather start in that boyís past.
Imagine yourself in a hospital ward. A young woman sits weeping by the bed of her boyfriend who is dying from injuries sustained in a road accident. Suddenly she experiences strange visions. Weeks later she finds that she is pregnant, yet she has not had sex since her boyfriend died. Nine months from his death, a baby boy is born, and he is olive skinned, even though she and the dead man were pale and English. Her family and friends all jump to the obvious wrong conclusion, or donít want a baby around, or both, and she soon finds herself on the road. Whilst hitching a lift through southern England she feels a sudden compulsion to ask to be let out in the middle of the countryside. Searching for shelter, she finds an isolated cottage where she seems to have been expected.
She is Annie Ward, and she survives her ordeal quite well. The owner of the cottage is Bartlemy Goodman, and he is several hundred years old. The baby, of course, is destined to save the world. His world, not ours.
Young Nathan, then, is a hero in the making. He has hidden powers. Specifically he travels to another world in his dreams. But despite what you might have expected from the bookís title, it is not a fairy world. Indeed, from the first description it sounds much more science fantasy, something Michael Moorcock might have conceived.
A city. A city at the end of Time. Towers soared up a mile or more, multi-facetted, topped with glass minarets reflecting sky, and spires whose glitter caught the sun. Far below, the ground was unseen beneath bridges and archways studded with windows, flyovers, walkways, suspended gardens. Airborne vehicles cruised the spaces in between, leaving con-trails in their wake that shimmered for a little while and then vanished. And occasionally there were creatures like giant birds, with webbed pinions stretching to a vast span and bony beaks, their human-sized riders hidden behind masks and goggles.
The world of Eos is indeed at the end of time. Its few inhabitants are centuries old, they are infertile, and their universe is slowly being consumed by a deadly plague. Their only hope is, well, they donít really know, but we do, donít we?
So, what do we have so far? An ancient wizard, a boy with a destiny, a dying civilization at the end of time, and a borrowed Arthurian artifact. What do we need now? Well, if it is a YA book we need a couple of eager sidekicks for our hero; a tomboyish girl and a fat, geeky boy. And why not add a country village murder mystery, complete with a bumbling police inspector who is never going to rumble the fact that the murderer is a supernatural monster. Oh, and a romantic interest for Nathanís poor mother who has suffered doing the Virgin Mary bit with such stoicism. That should keep the plot moving along quite nicely.
Is it too much? Possibly. I did end up feeling that the whole thing was just a little too silly. Maybe that was because some of the violence was heavily toned down. People died, but it all seemed somehow distant, as if Hemingway didnít want to cause the readers to have nightmares. Two things save the book.
The first is that, YA or no, this is not another re-hash of an Enid Blyton novel. Nathan and his pals are real, 21st Century kids with a sound knowledge of popular culture. Weird things happen to them, and naturally they interpret them in the light of books they have read and movies they have seen. Even the adults get in on the act. Nathan accidentally transports a man from Eos to our world and he has difficulty adjusting. One day he asks Nathan to tell him more about the great space-faring civilization of which Earth was once a part. Naturally Nathan is confused, but his friend is adamant, he saw it in the movies, "A long time ago in a galaxy far away." Look, if youíve come from a great, space-faring civilization at the end of time, Star Wars doesnít seem that unlikely.
Later in the book Nathan travels to Eos and befriends a beautiful princess. He needs her help to complete his quest. Coming from a world where no child has been born for centuries, she is aghast that Earth has sent a youngster on such a dangerous mission. She asks if this is happens a lot. Nathan thinks back to various books he has read ó by C.S. Lewis, J.K Rowling and Philip Pullman. "All the time," he says. Hemingway knows exactly what tradition she is writing in, she expects her readers to do so also, and every so often she tips them a knowing wink.
The other really good thing about the book is the twist ending. I canít really say anything about that because it would be a dreadful spoiler. Suffice it to say that I didnít spot it coming, despite a really obvious clue that Hemingway put out there and then covered up beautifully. It isnít often that an author blindsides me that well these days.
There will, of course, be two more books. Indeed Iím rather hoping that the next one will be waiting for me when I get back to the UK. Del Rey has the US rights and their paperback edition of The Greenstone Grail should be out before the end of the year (the hardcover was out in March).