Heriot by Margaret Mahy

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Heriot by Margaret Mahy

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Category: Teens
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Stefan Bachmann
Reviewed by Stefan Bachmann
Summary: A languid political fantasy that lacks any semblance of compelling narrative drive. It's exceptionally well-written, though, and just brimming with lush and vivid imagery.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 368 Date: July 2009
Publisher: Faber Children's Books
ISBN: 978-0571232109

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Heriot sets off in what is possibly the most conventional way 'high' fantasy can...

A twelve-year-old farm boy with mystical powers that he doesn't understand and can't quite control, is recruited to become the King's magician. He arrives at court during dangerous times, however, and soon finds himself in the middle of a plot to overthrow the King. (Ok, not so very soon: the whole conspiracy thing takes about half the book to show up, but moving on...) Running parallel to this are two other yarns that follow the lives of a prince who is haunted by odd dreams, and the unruly daughter of a noble who is, well, unruly.

The weird thing is, I liked the beginning, the conventional bit, the best. It's the only part of the book that has a sense of mystery and suspense, and once Heriot begins his grand adventure at the royal court, all that is thrown to the wind. I'm sorry to say I found large portions of the remainder of the book incredibly dull. The few things that were going on (some political skulduggery, character development, and lots of pseudo-philosophizing) all came about in a maddeningly vague way. You know, the way authors evoke dream sequences or hallucinations? I think it was meant to give the book a mythical quality in the vein of Tolkien. It didn't work at all for me, and I'm beginning to detest it when modern authors write that way over many pages.

Another complaint I had was that while reading, I could never quite tell who this book's audience was supposed to be. I'm not sure the author or the publisher knew either. Judging from the gimmicky blurb and the many familiar tropes, I think they would like it to be YA. In fact, the beginning, with its gently mysterious tone, reminded me a lot of Beatrix Potter's terrific work and seemed written for an even younger audience, maybe eight-and-up. Don't be fooled, this is no three-hundred page Peter Rabbit. Somewhere along the way the plot takes a drastic turn - things get dark, adult, and (at least superficially) complex. There are also some very modern, very crude locutions, and a ton of gore: a torture scene towards the end was yucky enough to have me skimming the paragraphs.

It wouldn't be fair only to bash this book, though, because the writing is really, truly excellent. Even while her plot is wallowing in abstruseness, Mahy's prose remains bright, compact and razor-sharp. She has a keen eye for the details, tiny quirks that make her places and characters seem deep and alive, and the images she conjures up jump off the page with astounding clarity. A few scenes (and there are some that are superbly staged!) I'll be remembering for a long while to come.

All in all, I think this book may simply be misrepresented in that it's staged as a children's fantasy. Truth is, once the first few chapters are past there's really not much that is going to appeal to teens, and definitely nothing under-twelves should be reading. I won't be recommending it to any of my fantasy-reading friends, but perhaps to adults who like moody, dreamy, unhurried books? Or to writing students in search of good prose to dissect...

Thanks is due to Faber for sending Bookbag a copy and for giving it such a tasteful look, without any of the usual glitters and gloss. I actually dared read it on the tram!

While I haven't read it myself, Empress by Karen Miller appears to share some similarities with Heriot, and might appeal to you if you like this sort of thing. Otherwise go back and re-read The Chronicles of Narnia, Ursula K. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea or Tolkien's The Hobbit. Those are proper high fantasy. They know exactly who their audience is (ages 0 to 100), have engaging, clearly defined plots and are just as well-written as anything published today.

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Buy Heriot by Margaret Mahy at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Heriot by Margaret Mahy at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Heriot by Margaret Mahy at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Heriot by Margaret Mahy at Amazon.com.


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