Rating : 68/100
Author : Douglas Hill
Genre : Children’s Fantasy
Date of First Publication : 1987
The Red Dragon was wondering what to select for his first book review – should it be the rather voluminous and somewhat dusty ‘Don Quixote’ reclining a little too comfortably on his shelf, the fancy hardback classics of English literature that cost an excessive amount of money to buy even though they can be downloaded for free because they’re all in the public domain now anyway, or the little known fantasy book once read and enjoyed in his youth many moons ago. It was a no-brainer really, and, since I enjoyed it once again, it did answer a question that had long been burning in the back of my mind – does going back to books that you enjoyed as a kid still work? At least for the most part this still proved an enjoyable, if very light, read.
At just under two hundred pages of fairly short text this can potentially be devoured in one sitting, and if enjoyed there is a concluding part of equal length waiting to be discovered, entitled ‘Master of Fiends’. It’s a children’s fantasy novel from Canadian novelist Douglas Hill set in an unnamed universe full of monsters, magic, heroes and Talents – unique humans that have special innate powers, such as the power of telekinesis or mind trickery. These special few are being collected by the powers of good, led by the mage Cryl, before the ruling forces of evil, led by he who shall not be named, can detect and eliminate the threat to their tyrannical over-lordship that they potentially represent.
The central character is twelve-year-old Jarral, a very ordinary, very average young boy, who suddenly finds his world turned upside down after the enemy he knew very little of, destroys his entire peaceful woodland village. Very much a trope of fantasy fiction taken to excess here as we firstly learn Jarral’s parents were both killed long ago, and then within a couple of pages his parent’s cousins that raised him are also swiftly sent into the afterlife. This can only point to one thing, that not only is Jarral destined to become powerful – but EXTREMELY powerful – will the Talents that Cryl has sent to find and protect the boy be enough against the far superior forces of darkness and the titular ‘Poisoner’ who commands them?
The narrative has a common trait running through most of it, wherein the protagonists will go through stark oscillations of moments of relaxation immediately followed by moments of austere panic, there is a lot of ‘and Jarral was finally able to rest his eyes for the first time since everyone he knew was brutally murdered. No sooner had he done so, than every sinew in his body was suddenly fraught with forthright terror as a new form of potential death descended on him from above. Fortunately, the skill of his comrades despatched the enemy, leading to a collective sigh of relief. Mandra made a joke at Jarral’s expense to lighten the situation – and then the tree beside her spontaneously EXPLODED …’ etc. etc. It’s not a major complaint though as this does keep the story going forward at a quick pace, all leading up to a suitably dramatic and tense finale.
At its heart, this is a coming of age tale as Jarral finds comradeship for the first time in his life but must learn to deal with the cruel blow fate has dealt him and, most importantly of all, he must learn to find his courage in the face of overwhelming odds – with the message of the novel encapsulated in the line
“Yes, even those for whom fighting is a way of life will feel fear before a battle. Courage isn’t an absence of fear, it’s refusing to give in to fear.” Scythe p103
Definitely worth a read for fans of the genre, and for any adults so long as they don’t have overly high expectations – should be perfect for any youngsters around the age of the main character.