The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt

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The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Fifty years old and it shows; this Dutch children's fantasy has all the hallmarks of slightly naïve, old-fashioned genre writing.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 520 Date: November 2013
Publisher: Pushkin Children's Books
ISBN: 9781782690108

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It's midsummer night, and Tiuri is one of five young men locked up in a chapel with one more night of silent penance between them and the ceremony that makes them knights of the realm, when a stranger lures him outside. The elderly man gives Tiuri the task of delivering a secret letter, and the chivalry and espionage is too much for the sixteen year old to ignore. The bad news begins, however, when he finds the very experienced knight he was to deliver the letter to dying alone on a forest floor, meaning Tiuri must accept the mantle unofficially, and deliver the missive to its ultimate audience – the king of the neighbouring country. The journey will bring the young man right to the cusp of danger, international intrigue and more.

It seems there are many hundreds of thousands of copies of this book lying on Dutch shelves, where the fantasy has attained Tolkienesque respect over the last fifty years. This edition is the first time it has ever appeared in English, despite the renown garnered from other countries. What's surprising however is how much any country could really have lapped it all up and taken it to heart. I can see the atmospheric mountain crossing being of interest to readers in the rather much flatter Netherlands, but I can't see this book as deserving such worldwide respect and adoration.

It is a straight, classic fantasy, definitely pitched at the younger side of the YA market. With a couple of words the schoolchild may need to look up, it evokes its narrative very well, in as far as it goes. Certainly the writing is clear and offers a lot of clarity in all regards, whether the international machinations, the characters or the locations. But the world-building does seem on the basic side. The author's own world map (joined here by her own nice illustrations) shows the story to be pretty much East meets West – A versus B, with a dash of C thrown in. Too much of the world is defined by colour – from the literal colours of the knights to the names of the rivers, which might help comprehension and might just sound too easy. It's also rather unseemly to have such a fantasy world where everyone uses the clock and timekeeping we know and use, and especially where one worships at the foot of a crucifix.

Other things seem a little simplistic, as well, including some of the plotting. There is a little here that is too obvious – certainly for the adult. The toll bridge system featured is certainly too obviously stupid to work in reality. But beyond the simplistic elements lies the sheer narrative drive of the quest story. It is rare to find such a plot that you can't find a connection with, and you do empathise for Tiuri. He certainly goes through a lot in these pages – as evidenced by it being quite a chunk of a book – and we're with him all the time, whether he faces duplicitous bad knights, lone assassins, or even just the elements.

It's this engagement with the plot that our author has created that wins the book over, even if, to repeat, I really don't think it will be so victorious in English, certainly in this day and age. The choice of straight classic fantasy is so broad, and has shorter, cleverer and more immediate books to pick at will, and I don't see this as any real competition to Tolkien or Earthsea on the shelves of the young. It's certainly a privilege for me to have read a long-ignored book, even if I don't think it is that classic. Dragt certainly dragt her plot out with a little too much that underwhelmed, but I can also see others taking to her shameless, old-fashioned simplicity a bit more than I did.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

Ghost Hawk by Susan Cooper is the kind of book that shows how genre fantasy has progressed in fifty years - while still maintaining its own inbuilt traditions.

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