FIRST GREAT READS FOR JULY, 2014
Where the Rekohu Bone Sings, by Tina Makeriti
What a pleasure it was to read this story. Ms Makeriti’s prose is rich and powerful; it sings with utmost poignancy of the Moriori, a peaceful people hopelessly outnumbered, subjugated and slaughtered by a desperate, aggressive foe who came to their island, Rekohu in 1835, themselves pursued by enemy tribes bent on their destruction. After the carnage had ceased, the dead were eaten, the ultimate insult to a race who refused to lift its weapons to fight. Those who were considered fit enough to be slaves were taken back to mainland New Zealand, prisoners of their contemptuous Maori conquerors.
Iraia, born to his slave mother some years later, has never known anything other than captivity and even less of familial affection after his mother was drowned when he was very small; instead he grows up like ‘a stray puppy, a skulking dog’ on the farm of his captors in conditions little better than the farm animals. Everyone, from Tu the patriarch, his skylarking sons and Whaea Audrey, Tu’s God-fearing bad-tempered sister, ignore him when they are not using him for farm labour; they call him ‘boy’, refusing to use his given name. Regardless, it would never occur to Iraia to run away, to leave his miserable existence, for there is one constant: his hopeless love for the daughter of the family, Mere. Beautiful, headstrong, fearless Mere, whose childhood devotion to Iraia, her sometime minder, has blossomed into something different – and Mere, always full of plans, hatches another: it is time to fly the coop with Iraia! She knows that her family would never consent to her union with a lowly slave, so they will both have to seek a life somewhere where her family would never think to look – and they do, arriving in 1870’s Wellington with a little money Mere stole from her father’s purse and nothing else except excitement at their audacity and success at evading her vengeful father, and the brimming optimism of first love.
One hundred year later, Tui, a descendant of Mere and Iraia and married to a Pakeha European has just given birth to fraternal twins, a boy and a girl, Bigsy and Lula: remarkably, Lula is red-haired and pale; Bigsy has caramel skin and dark hair – who would ever think they are related, much less twins? Their progress through their childhood and eventual maturing to adults is intriguing, especially as they both are forced to face their ancestry and their place in the world when their mother dies and their father decides that she should be taken home to be buried on her ancestral land: it’s the right thing to do, even though she had been estranged from her family for years. It’s the right thing, the only thing, to do.
And there, on the land where Mere and Iraia forged unbreakable bonds, Bigsy and Lula learn secrets that their mother kept hidden all her life; secrets that the family admitted with shame more than a hundred years later; revelations that will draw them both back to Rekohu, now known as the Chatham Islands to learn the origins of their bloodstained family history.
Sadly, I felt that the story was let down by Bigsy and Lula. As modern representatives of their singular forebears they were less than convincing, but Ms Makeriti succeeds brilliantly with the family ancestors: they leapt from the page and spoke to me of birth and death and love and war with such eloquence that I won’t forget them, or the peace-loving Moriori from which her inspiration sprang. This is a wonderful story that those two-dimensional twins fail to spoil. Highly recommended.
Prince of Fools, by Mark Lawrence
Jalan Kendeth is a prince of Red March, a southern kingdom blessed with bountiful harvests and buxom wenches. He is young, handsome and blessed with boundless energy – but not for anything constructive. He freely admits to being irresponsible, (he is hugely in debt to a sadistic moneylender) feckless, (no woman is safe from his doubtful charms) and famously disinterested in the affairs and business of ruling his country – which is fortunate; he is tenth in line to his grandmother the Red Queen’s throne and as such would never be considered for the crown. Also, he is considered the runt of the litter of his family of older brothers, for despite his fine height and good build he is ‘The Little One’. They dwarf him, every one.
Well, who cares? Not him: he’s quite happy to remain one step ahead of the moneylender (and he’s a damn fine runner!), and to worry about consequences for any of his actions after he has acted – until he becomes involved with a huge Norseman, a captive of his grandmother who has been freed because he gave her vital information about a huge and frightening army preparing to attack from the frozen Northern wastes of the Bitter Ice. Through a dreadful twist of fate – and a ghastly spell concocted by a witch (truly!) – they are bound together by the good and bad strands of the spell and compelled to journey North to try to stop the advance of the Dead King and his ghastly army of corpses. Snorri ver Snagason, the Norseman, is happy to begin the journey: his wife and children are captives in the North and he means to rescue them. Jalan, needless to say, feels exactly the opposite. Heading purposely towards certain death is not on his agenda, but such is the power of the spell that he has no choice and begins the journey with a quaking heart and loud protestations.
Regardless of his fears, he and Snorri travel inexorably northwards, most of the time with little food and no money, depending more than once on ‘the kindness of strangers’, until they reach Ancrath, home of Jorg, Prince of Thorns, who is back in favour – however temporarily - with his father, King Olidan. Jalan makes much of his princely status while he can, until Olidan’s Queen tries to bribe him to kill Jorg, but Jalan has no stomach for such a task, especially when he sees the Prince of Thorns and is a victim of his ‘thousand yard stare’. No: it’s time he and the Norseman resumed their journey – fast!
Once again, we are off on a marvellous adventure through Mark Lawrence’s great fantasy of Europe after The Big Bang, the Explosion of a Thousand Suns, the setting of his superb ‘Prince of Thorns’ trilogy. (See review below)
Jalan Kendeth’s story runs parallel to the action in the first trilogy so he is bound to cross paths again with the deadly Honorous Jorg Ancrath; it will be fascinating to see if his and Norri’s travails have given him an injection of the courage he honestly acknowledges he lacks, but by the end of Book One our expectations are not high – instead, what is certain is that Mark Lawrence has produced once again a fantasy of the highest order, with characters that readers truly care about, and more action than you can shake a stick at. There are Unborn, Undead and Unnaturals littering every chapter, not to mention witches, bitches and seers by the score: what more could a dedicated fantasy reader ask for, except top quality writing and plotting. Mark Lawrence does it all. Highly recommended.
Prince of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence
You read it here first: What an adventure! Mark Lawrence’s debut novel has all the requisite ingredients for the ideal fantasy – a wronged and vengeful hero, warring kingdoms, ghosts, necromancers, murders most foul, and a complete lack of honour, except amongst thieves.
At the tender age of nine, Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath was forced to witness the slaughter of his mother and younger brother William by Count Renar of the Highlands and his troops. If he expected his father the king to avenge their dreadful murders, he is sorely disappointed; instead, the king negotiates compensation in the shape of land and horses for his loss. Seeds of hatred and revenge are sown in the fertile ground of Jorg’s grief and heartbreak: he takes to the road and joins a band of mercenaries and outlaws, and because he no longer cares if he lives or dies, he becomes their leader through sheer recklessness and a bravado that is fearless and suicidal – oh, Jorg has problems, alright – he has already lived five lifetimes and he’s only fourteen!
Mark Lawrence has created a rip-roaring, no-holds-barred, heart-in-the-mouth pageturner in this first book, and in spite of the reader knowing they shouldn’t believe a word of it, they are totally sucked in, swept along with the clever plot and more action than a body should rightly have to endure – oh, it’s great stuff, and this is just the first book of a Trilogy. ‘King of Thorns’ is next, and a fascinating question for the reader is to figure out exactly the timeline in which Mr Lawrence has set his stories: a vastly altered central Europe might be the setting, but who can be sure? Everyone fights in armour with medieval weapons, but Jorg wears a wrist-watch! (which doesn’t make an appearance till book two) – and he lets loose what seems suspiciously like a nuclear explosion halfway through book one. I have come to the conclusion (I’m ashamed to say it took me a while) that Jorg’s story is set far into the future: it’s possible that the world we knew has been destroyed for whatever terrible reason, and the regenerating human race hasn’t progressed beyond another Medieval Age in its attempts to survive.
Which all adds to this trilogy’s great appeal. ‘ Prince of Thorns’ was a gripping read, but book two, ‘King of Thorns’ is even better. Roll out book three! Mark Lawrence isn’t just a good storyteller – he’s a great one. Whatever I read next, this will be a hard act to follow.