The Hidden Kingdom by Ian Beck

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The Hidden Kingdom by Ian Beck

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Category: Teens
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Linda Lawlor
Reviewed by Linda Lawlor
Summary: A poet prince finds himself thrust into a terrifying battle with the forces of evil – a destiny long predicted, but which he has refused to acknowledge. Only the skill and devotion of a couple of the young peasants he despises can lead him to accept his role in history.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: October 2011
Publisher: OUP
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0192755636

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Prince Osamu is a pampered, spoiled young orphan who has never known friends his own age or been told what to do. He spends his life surrounded by beauty and riches in a world where most people do not even dare to raise their eyes to his face, collecting the exquisite pots made by Master Masumi and writing poems. His tutors have told him about the demons of Hades which try, every few centuries, to break through the barrier and take over this world, and that it is his responsibility to repel them, but he dismisses all this as old wives' tales. And then one night the forces of the Emissary attack the palace, and every certainty he had is gone in a flash.

At first he is more outraged than afraid. He is unwilling to get out of bed, but he is dragged out naked by Ayah, his old servant, and roughly pushed into his clothes. He whines and complains, refusing to move until he is told what is going on, and promising that he will have both Ayah and her daughter Lissa put to death for what they have done. Lissa's only answer is to slap his face hard and tell him his life is now in her hands. He still tries to resist, but finds himself bundled into a sledge and covered in heaps of fur against the biting cold. Then the two of them set off across the snow as the palace is destroyed and everyone who lives there is slaughtered.

In the first part of the book we see Osamu's complete inability to grasp what is happening, and his determination to cling to the rituals which have formed his life. He is utterly selfish, promising Lissa he will have her put to death for her insolence even as she kills the men who are trying to capture him, and he has no hesitation in making his disgust for her abundantly plain. And even when he begins to understand his plight, and his role in the coming battle, he still treats her like a servant, demanding after a long and exhausting flight through the snowy wastes that she draw him a bath.

'The Hidden Kingdom' is a thrilling tale, full of danger and near-escapes and the horror of war. But it is told in lyrical prose which suits the semi-mythical, oriental feel of the story, like the gorgeous cover art which manages to combine delicate beauty and foul war in a single image. Ian Beck himself is an artist by trade, and at key points in the narrative he chooses a single image which encapsulates the mood of the scene: the cherry blossom framed against the sky as the prince faces the Emissary in their life and death struggle, and the smell of cooked fish as the men of his army prepare their final meal before the battle. And the whole story is told against a backdrop of winds and snowstorms as cold as the hearts of those who seek to release the seven demons into this world.

The theme of the book is serious and dark, but it has a lighter side which only serves to highlight the importance of the struggle. Once the prince is adopted by a stray dog he learns the value of affection, and starts to respect the multitude of people who are willing to die to keep him safe. He even manages to show a little humility. Baku, the potter's apprentice, is gauche and gawky, especially when he sees a pretty girl, but his courage is all the more striking because of it. And his master Masumi masks his kindness and concern for the boy beneath a nagging monologue about his stupidity and his tendency to drool.

This book has a timeless charm, with a feel of eternal verities about it, and the deceptive simplicity of its theme will move many a reader to tears towards the end. It has the potential to become a classic.

Many thanks to Oxford University Press for sending us this superb book.

Further reading suggestion: Another beautiful and elegant tale with an oriental setting is Eon: Rise of the Dragoneye by Alison Goodman.

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