Tuesday 25 October 2016

Books: Familiar fantasy tale to propel Rudden to Young Adult stardom

Fantasy: Knights of the Borrowed Dark, Dave Rudden, Puffin, pbk, 337 pages, €9.99

Published 03/04/2016 | 02:30

Beautiful prose: Dave Rudden
Beautiful prose: Dave Rudden
Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Ruddin.

Dave Rudden was catapulted to fame when, just 26, he secured a six-figure advance for his first book. Now, two years on, that book is here.

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As is fairly standard in children's fiction, particularly this fantasy genre, Knights of the Borrowed Dark is the first in a trilogy. So will the Cavan man join the ranks of Derek Landy, Eoin Colfer, Darren Shan, Shane Hegarty and other Irish superstars of middle-grade fiction (ie, roughly aimed at readers aged 11-plus)?

Short answer: probably. Long answer: this is a fine first outing, with a few caveats. Even longer answer: for that, dear reader, read on…

First, the story. Denizen Hardwick is on the cusp of his 13th birthday. He lives in an orphanage, isolated on Achill Island - a bookish, introspective boy, he's not horribly unhappy, but nonetheless suffers a certain ennui. He never knew his parents, or what happened them, he knows nothing about his past.

A few months after his birthday, Denizen is, unexpectedly, removed from the orphanage by his Aunt Vivian. Unexpectedly, because he never knew he had an aunt. More unexpected again is the cool sonofabitch Grey, who arrives in an equally cool car to spirit Denizen away.

But even that isn't as big a surprise as the gigantic monster which attacks them on the road outside Dublin, materialising from some hellish alternate dimension and assembling a body from chunks of tarmac and concrete.

Grey dispatches it with some whispered magic - words transformed into killing energy, essentially - and Denizen finds out that Aunt Vivian is leader of the Dublin cadre of our titular Knights Of The Borrowed Dark.

This ancient order prevents these foul beasts from escaping their realm, known as the Tenebrae: a "world of living darkness" where nightmares and horror dwell, ever-trying to breach the dividing wall and manifest here. Now that he's seen the dark side of reality, Denizen must decide if he wants to be a part of that ageless fight.

Some of that may sound vaguely familiar to you, which brings me to my main problem with the book.

Much of it feels like things we've encountered before, both in children's and other fiction. The orphaned weakling destined to become a great hero; the colourful, slightly ridiculous names which sound as though they might have escaped from Dickens (Denizen Hardwick, Mr Ackerby, Abigail Falx, Crosscaper Orphanage, Fuller Jack); the core conceit of a parallel universe trying to break into ours (believe it or not, I've written a kids' book on that theme myself); the antediluvian order of warriors, with their swords and gauntlets, flouncing about in capes instead of sensible rain gear. All the bloody candles and antique books.

In the end, though, this isn't a problem, for three reasons. First, we expect certain things in certain genres, we welcome them - they're part of the superstructure. So the familiarity is okay. Second, Rudden adds enough twists to the basic formula, of sufficient originality and colour, to make his world memorable. I especially liked how the monsters use whatever's available to construct their earthbound shape, and how use of supernatural powers slowly transforms Knights from flesh to iron.

Third, and most importantly, the novel is beautifully written. There isn't a single word or sentence out of place, not one that could be improved. Rudden has the eye and ear of a true artist.

More impressive still, he somehow maintains an age-appropriate tone in the language, even as he's crafting this wonderfully evocative and lyrical prose. And lest that sound a bit high-falutin', the story rattles along at a brisk clip, speckled with wry humour, and there are moments of genuinely thrilling, nail-biting tension and terror.

So yes, to finally answer that question: Dave Rudden should certainly join his fellow Knights of the Top-Selling Middle-Grade Novels, and soon. But if that doesn't work out, I've no doubt he could forge a successful career in literary fiction.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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