Friday 26 December 2014

How the quest was won – Alex Barclay delivers a royal knockout

Published 27/01/2013 | 06:00

Former Dublin journalist Alex Barclay is best known for her dark crime novels, set mainly in America. She is one of the bestselling Irish crime writers with a large readership in the UK, Europe and the US as well as at home. She won the Crime Fiction Award at the Irish Book Awards for Blood Runs Cold, her third novel.

Her latest book, however, is for children – following in the footsteps of fellow crime writers John Connolly and John Grisham.

Curse of Kings, the first book in Barclay's new Trials of Oland Born series, is a lovingly crafted historical fantasy – the best Irish debut of its kind since Celine Kiernan's ground-breaking The Poison Throne.

The book opens in a medieval castle where the badly injured King Micah of the Kingdom of Decresian is murdered by his right-hand man, the wonderfully named Villius Ren (surely destined to be played by Alan Rickman one day).

Ren and his brutal warriors – the Craven Lodge – take over the kingdom, terrifying its people into submission.

Fourteen years on, we meet Oland Born, a boy who was discovered as a baby in the castle on the very night that the king was killed. Oland is now the Craven Lodge's servant.

While hiding in his secret room, Oland finds a letter from the long dead King Micah, addressed to him. It reads: 'You live in the ruins of a once-great kingdom destroyed by greed and misguided ambition. But fear not – Decresian shall be restored. And it falls to you, Oland Born, to do so.'

And so begins Oland's quest to overthrow Villius Ren by solving the riddles set out by the King in his letter and to avoid all those who threaten to destroy him on his journey.

But for Oland there is also another quest: to find the truth about his parents and to discover who he is.

Helping him along the way is a succession of people who are still loyal to King Micah, including a wily girl Delphi and a strange monkey called Malben.

There is a lot of back story squeezed into the first half of the book and several unnecessary minor characters, both of which slow down the plot.

The reader is also expected to overlook some glaring coincidences – for example Oland and Delphi manage to pop out of an enchanted forest just in front of a sailing ship that will take them to their next destination, the magnificently drawn Curfew Peak, a terrifying place full of lost boys, monsters and ancient secrets.

But these are minor quibbles. The second half of the book is truly gripping, with many clever plot twists culminating in an outstandingly conceived, mind-blowing scene where Oland and Delphi's true callings are revealed.

Curse of Kings firmly establishes Alex Barclay as a name to watch in the world of children's books.

Sarah Webb's latest book for adults, The Memory Box (Pan Macmillan), has just been published.

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