J D Oswald’s opening novel of `The Ballard of Sir Benfro’ sits nicely in the comfortable median of fantasy novels. Linguistically it is straightforward, the prose moves along with a gentle pace, the plotlines are familiar to those immersed in the culture of fantasy novels, and the characters are drawn from a common pool of fairy-tale character types that we all know so well. As such the novel neatly blends in a fable of dragons, an Evil Queen, and an insidious Inquisition with a youthful coming-of-age story wrapped around prophecy and magic.
As readers we lope easily alongside oft-repeated fantasy novel scenes such as “young hero defeating the bully”, “dealing with confused feelings regarding the opposite sex”, “being taught discipline through enigmatic hard labour”, “understanding that incredible magical powers that are there to be used but training is needed”, “rebelliousness against authority” etc.. In the background to these rites of passage is a story where upheaval, murder, political shenanigans, megalomania abound. It is a traditional fantasy novel opener where our protagonists are but children born under a prophetic night, born into a world they must save. The novel is centred around that quest.
All of this is well-trodden ground those well versed fantasy readers would find in the likes of Eragon, Narnia, The Belgariad. Into the mixture is woven a tight history of dragons and men, enhanced with strongly Celtic mythology and Arthurian-esque romance.
The story concerns the first young male dragon to be born in over a thousand years. Benfro is a kitling in a secret forest community of dragons – a species once proud, mighty, fearless, flying…now walkers, hidden, afraid of men, where “to be a dragon now was to be a pale shadow of the former glory that once had ruled the world”. For all their decline dragons remain magical, they make use of the grym (leylines) to walk the Aether, to shape the world to their benediction. In turn, an order of warrior-priests uses the Aurddraig to justify the murder of the dragons, seeking instead “the knowledge and wisdom of a lifetime stored in a dragon’s jewels”.
Whilst Benfro approaches his fourteenth birthday under the careful tutelage of his mother Morgym, he is forced to deal with the jealousy of Frecknock and the death of Ysrad Fflur. At the same time, a babe who was taken from his dead princess mother’s womb and secreted away in a village grows to his fourteenth birthday. A boy who must one day be a king, Errol Ramsbottom is quickly marked as a stranger to his village, found by Inquisitor Melyn and taken away to the castle to learn and be watched. As Beulah plots to kill her father, the King, so Errol must struggle to understand the power within him.
By the end we know that “you are a dreamwalker, Benfro. You walk with ease in places that a trained mage might take years to reach. But you don’t know how it is that you do these things…You need to learn.”
By the end we have travelled a great way with these two youngsters, have witnessed the terrible rise of an Evil Queen, watched the nefarious culmination of years of plotting by evil Inquisitors, and been shocked by its murderous denouement.
By the end we are craving more from the author, keen to find out what happens to our two heroes, desperate for them to come into their true heritage and save a world teetering on the edge of destruction.
It is the easy familiarity of character, place and plot that might make many readers turn away. There is nothing unique in the tale, yet, for all that, Oswald tells his story so well that we are drawn to Benfro and Errol’s parallel journeys. He deftly uses literary hooks to draw us in: we want to witness their transition to adulthood, we find ourselves accelerating through the pages as they slowly learn what is obvious to us as readers. The archetypal “baddies” of Melyn and Beulah are pantomime enough to have us see them as Disney characters, yet real enough for us to seek their comeuppance.
This novel isn’t ground-breaking; and in that lays its success. For a new generation of fantasy readers it will tap into a vast reservoir of Celtic myth; for those well-versed in the genre it will be familiar yet well-told. It is safe story-telling of the sort that you’d imagine Sir Frynwy breathing life into around a warm fire in the heart of the dragon village. It is exactly this which makes `Dreamwalker’ so warmly readable and has us, as readers, yearning for the next novel even as we turn the last page on this one.
Categories: J D Oswald