Sarah Cawkwell’s first full length novel is somewhat safe, ticking all the boxes for a middle-of-the-road, well-paced fantasy story. It’s got the hero and his beautiful girlfriend; it’s got a “Fellowship” on a quest; it’s got the ‘all-powerful-until-the-denouement’ evil characters; it’s got light touches of humour, of sadness; it’s got the ‘coming-of-age’ story in a world full of change and magic. All classic fantasy ingredients…for a reason. What is slightly different (though done much better by Mark Alder in his recent “Son of the Morning”) is the backdrop of an alternative history of England mixed with a heavy dose of the supernatural. In this case based on the premise of “what if a demonic intervention meant Henry Tudor did not win the Battle of Bosworth and the Plantagenet line continued to rule England from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century A.D.?’
Readers will get a good sense of the author’s grounding in Warhammer and online gaming given the narrative plays exactly like one of those scenarios. The story is centred around one Mattias Eynon, a young lad living in Wales with an inherent gift of magic – a gift that was brought to England by Richard the Lionheart (this is the pivot on which history diverges). This is an England where the ‘Eastern Promise unlocked a whole new world. It was a world terrifying and overwhelming in equal measure –but it was also a world of limitless potential.” Yet, it was also an England where “Freedom was a thing long forgotten.”
There is some inexperience in the narration. Early on the author stresses the slow creep of magic into society, with sentences like: “Slowly, but surely, magic became part of the culture” or “The words of magic began slowly to trickle down.” These conflict with her rush to say “By the time of Richard’s death, five years after his return…magic had firmly taken root.” And “with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215…the spread of magic through the population was unprecedented.” A minor point, but given these occur early in the story, the more experienced fantasy novel reader will wince slightly. I got a sense of a rush by the author to set the background, wanting to delve into the ‘present’ story.
The novel opens with a swift explanation of how Richard III (he who was found under a car park in Leicester recently) did a deal with the demon Melusine to win the field at Bosworth; the price of which means one of his descendants will be handed to her so she may gain entrance to the world…an entrance through the magic of Stonehenge. Skip forward a hundred years and we find Mattias and Tagan (his girlfriend) fleeing the terrible Inquisitor Weaver who is the mighty fist of King Richard V. The latter wears a mask, possesses a superhuman strength and will and is a bloodhound tracking down all who practise magic and condemning them to swift (usually fiery) death. Both young people have a magical talent, one that needs nurturing, one that Weaver has been sent to snuff out.
Having been magically transported to a henge in Bavaria, Germany to meet a powerful magus – Warin the Shapeshifter – the rest of the novel becomes a quest for Mattias and Tagan to find the other three powerful magi (Eyja – She Who Sees, Giraldo de Luna – the Pirate King, and Akhgar Ibn Atash – the Wanderer) then defeat the demon Melusine. I have to say that when this motley crew got together I was faintly reminded of ‘The Princess Bride’. Primarily because of the rakish Giraldo, who is both strutting peacock and swordsman extraordinaire. Each member of the fellowship compliments the others; we find ourselves in dark forests, on raging seas, crossing harsh deserts…all the while chased by the inexhaustible Weaver until the denouement at Stonehenge. Events seem to come to a satisfactory end with the important opening for the author to write another novel.
I quite liked this novel because it took me back to fantasy reading as a teenager. There’s a character type for all gamers and this is the novel’s target audience…it’s not a “teen novel” like Hunger Games et al. but it certainly will appeal to those immersed in the ‘original’ strain of fantasy novels. Those who grew up with D&D, those who now indulge in Warhammer or World of Warcraft will find much to enjoy as they turn the pages. It’s not high on technicality, but it is abundant with the possibility of the reader swelling the words with their own imagination and that…is what makes it rather good.