The sequel arrives
Here is a book for rather older children, or perhaps particularly for those caught on the awkward cusp between late childhood and young adulthood. The author calls it a 'dark, strange, sad book' and he is not wrong. It is a challenging read but it is also a breathtakingly wonderful one.
Dave Rudden's opening book in the Knights of the Borrowed Dark series was Children's Book of the Year in the 2016 Irish Book Awards - and deservedly so. It was a truly remarkable start to his new sequence. (See my post from May '16.) In fact it should have won stacks of other awards too, and could well have done so were it not for something of a prejudice, I fear, against magic fantasy as a genre, and in favour of novels about 'real life issues'. Fear not. Dave Rudden's time will come, I am sure, with this second Knights'book only adding to his reputation. It extends far beyond and above the first. Book 2 to Book 1 is as moth to caterpillar.
Depths soon emerge
Initially, the opening title seemed to sit very firmly in the 'orphan-discovers-he-has-magical-talents-and-is-taken-off-to-fight-unimaginable-evil-and-ends-up-saving-the-world' sort of book. Superficially it is. However it soon develops multiple levels of depth, huge originality and downright quality by the shedload.
The Forever Court also starts with a very genre-typical 'boy-hero-and-mates-beat-up-gruesome-monster' episode. (Even here, though, Dave Rudden manages to get in a very strong positive image of his young hero as a reader, which is more than a bonus.) However, this simplistic format doesn't hold sway for very long. The first book came to a cataclysmic conclusion with shocking deaths and a staggering encounter between protagonist, Denizen and, well, someone else. (No spoilers, or at least not big ones.) There were other shocking discoveries about his own family history, too.
A real boy in a fantasy world
It doesn't take long for the fallout from all of these to impact dramatically on the story of Book 2. This is no two-dimensional comic book tale. It is indeed a story of the fight to the death between the grotesquely monstrous, other-worldly 'Tenebrous' and the 'Knights' whose only raison d'etre is to destroy them. But is is also very much the story af a thirteen-year-old boy. Denizen's insides now churn with anger about the way life, and his parents, have treated him. This same anger is echoed in the powers of terrible magic fire that he has been given. They too burn inside him and take all his efforts to contain. Either or both could easily consume him. More is added to his emotional turmoil when he is plunged into the trauma a of a first love - with possibly the most unsuitable 'girl' imaginable. Or maybe not even that. He is lost, confused, every inch the young teenager. He is a true denizen of humanity, a boy of sorrows and aquainted with frowns; he has so many ways of furrowing his brow that he has them all mentally catalogued, numbered and classified.
However Denizen is sensitive and intelligent too. He thinks, he questions, and, through him, the book delves deeply into the moral ambivalences, the ambiguities that lurk between the extremes of good and evil on which his new world is predicated. He can see that, 'Evil isn't a cliff you fall from, it's a staircase you climb.' He is no cardboard hero, nor his author any slouch at turning a phrase.
Most telling of all, perhaps, is the constant interpolation of this 'normal' thirteen-year-old into the context of superheroism in which he finds himself. The back cover blurb of this edition pulls the wonderful quote: 'The last time Denizen had seen Mercy, he'd had to save the world. He really hoped he wasn't going to have to save it again.' In itself, this entertainingly points the incongruity between heroic deeds and a rather cynical teenager. However, I liked even better the passage which immediately follows. It continues, 'Afterwards, Denizen and Simon got chips. It was a little anticlimactic,' and concludes, 'Maybe that was why Knights were continually on edge - you never knew whether the next five minutes would contain soul-crushing horror or chips with garlic sauce.' Delicious. The writing and the chips.
Yet all of this sits within a rich, enthralling plot about a war, laced with an outside chance of peace. The high-adrenaline plot twists and turns like the passages of a labyrinth. And there is certainly a monster at its centre. But the exact nature of the beast is far less clear. Where does all the belligerence, all the killing, come from? Who is to be trusted? 'Hatred and fear build like rust,' and they seem to be corroding Denizen's world away. Can his being a Kight, actually make things better, or is the very act of protecting the world destroying it? He has already saved the world once . . .
A further deep, rich seam is added to this new phase of the story by what seems, for much of the book, to be an unconnected sub-plot. Strange, dark, and enigmatic, it adds an enthralling new array of images. Here are a new set of characters, an isolated cult of humans who believe themselves the chosen ones of their 'Redemptress', a disturbing figure of wires housed in the corpse of a castle . They are preparing themselves for a 'war to come' with only their gargantuan belief in themselves, the favoured ones, to pit against all comers. All who are not 'us' are 'them'; those who do not believe, those who do not belong. The 'family' have been preparing themselves for generations. Keeping the faith. Doing Her will. They are Croits, badged with the crow and the claw. And their fanaticism resonates so strongly with that in our own world that it is terrifying. Deeply disturbing.
Amongst the Croits is a boy, Uriel, and his twin sister. He trains to fight, he prepares for war, like all the Croits. He builds his hate for 'them', his desperation to kill any, or preferably all. His heritage is to serve Her. But, like Denizen, he thinks too. He questions. And it will be his salvation. Or his downfall.
When the two strands of story do come together they do so with inevitable violence. Their final confluence bring startling revelations, but little resolution. New understanding , but, with it. new conflict. Now there are two boys, Denizen and Uriel, alike and different, both seeking the source that corrupts their world, both hoping desperately to find, to save what they love. But each is lost in the labyrinth. Is it the same maze? Are their different paths leading them towards the same monster?
This author knows exactly how and when to rack up the tension, even when you think all is already stretched to breaking point. And, through it all, his masterly and original use of language galvanises the reader's imagination like a current of electricity. Sometimes it shocks, sometimes it tingles. He can turn a phrase, conjure an image, bring characters and action into vivid focus better than almost any writer of children's fiction I know. Constantly the flux of his linguistic power reacts against your own imagination, coats it and strengthens it. No headset is necessary for a virtual reality to boot itself inside your mind. You see every scene, think every thought, feel every fear. You churn with all the anger and all the love of a hugely confused thirteen-year old. You live every visceral moment of gripping action. The world Dave Rudden has created is all around you; outside you, and within. It is your world now. You will always have to live with the image of the truly terrifying flock of crows that form the body of malevolent Malebranche. On you inward eye is forever engraved the picture of Denizen and the awesome Mercy in an embassy garden in Dublin where they almost . . . Perhaps you will hear them too. 'And deafening came the sound of wings.' ; 'She laughed again, a sound like raindrops, if raindrops knew how to dance.' (A great book is so eminently quotable.)
A classic in the making
This is fiction, in all its power and potency. See. Hear. Think. Feel. Endure. Remember. Know.
At the close of this second book, the small consolations offered come nowhere close to offsetting much impending dread. The narrative of Knights of the Borrowed Dark is growing into something monumental. It seems to be careering towards Apocalypse. But will there be redemption? Like The Lord of the Rings, it treats of the possibility of saving everything and the risk of losing everything. It places the small and vulnerable at the heart of all that is huge and terrible It celebrates goodness and castigates evil. Unlike that illustrious predecessor, however, it simultaneously questions the nature of each, and even the distinction between them. Just as Tolkien' s world echoed that of WWII and its aftermath, so this one somehow resonates profoundly with our own times. Are Denizen and Uriel true heros or just lost and confused boys?
Unless he messes up on Part 3, which seems unlikely, it begins to look like Dave Rudden has used the children's/YA genre to craft one of the great works of fantasy literature. And good on him for that.
Those who demean fantasy fiction, considering it inferior to books about 'real life' and 'real issues' are missing out. Unkindly, one might say it is their loss. However when they are parents or teachers, or those who influence them, it can mean that it is young people who ultimately miss out and that is saddening and infuriating in equal measure. This book is the epitome of what the very best fantasy can offer. It is a challenging read, both intellectually and emotionally. It is thought provoking about big issues which profoundly affect our lives and our world. It is written in language that is surprising, exciting and enriching. And all of this is in the context of a narrative that is as compulsively page-turning as it is disturbing. It is indeed a dark, strange, sad book.
'What could we become in the dark but monsters?'
Dave Rudden's writing is the best thing since . . . well . . . since chips with garlic sauce.
Heads up USA. This stunner of a book is due out with you August '17.