The Prince in Waiting Trilogy by John Christopher

christopherj-princeinwaitingThis volume brings together three short novels of around 150 pages each: The Prince in Waiting, Beyond the Burning Lands, and The Sword of the Spirits. The saga is set centuries in the future, in a Britain that has recovered from a natural disaster of apocalyptic proportions. Civilisation somewhat resembles the feudal medieval period. Each city, walled off from all others, is individually governed by its prince. And in summer, cities go to war with each other, more for custom’s sake than for conquest. There is no king governing the land. Machines are forbidden, because of the Disaster, and all fighting is done with bows and swords, all travelling by horse. Among people, classes are divided into humans, dwarfs, and polymufs – those unfortunate enough to be born with mutations and whose role in life is confined to servitude.

Each city has its own Seer, who speaks on behalf of the Spirits – strange disembodied apparitations that appear to men in Seance Halls. Luke Perry, a young nobleman of the city of Winchester, is proclaimed by the Spirits to be Prince in Waiting, and it is propesied that he will become Prince of Princes, ruling the whole land. But what are these Spirits? Real beings from a higher plane, or something else? Luke is soon to find out.

The saga takes many twists and turns, involving politics, war, friendship, love, and betrayal. The reader is guided through several strange and unusual cultures, as Luke’s quest take him far from his city, crossing the Burning Lands, a volcanic area separating Luke’s homeland in the south from the land of the Wilsh in the north. As a book marketed for children, the content is really quite grown up. Luke himself is nothing like a child of our own culture, and in some ways I found it difficult to be sympathetic with his cause at times. Culture clash is a prevalent theme, and the reader is invited to observe that a custom is not necessarily right simply because it is one we happened to grow up with. Another theme is the two-edged sword of technology – its benefit to society measured against its use as a tool of conquest, not forgetting its use as a means to manipulate the “primitive” mind. I’m reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s quote: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The whole story is not quite as epic as Christopher’s The Tripods, but holds its own as a thoroughly engrossing tale, one that gets more interesting with each subsequent book. There’s enough good story material in here to span one of those big multi-volume sagas that are typically over 300 pages per book, as is the trend with modern fantasy writing. But I much prefer Christopher’s brevity. The Prince in Waiting Trilogy is an intelligent, gritty, violent children’s fantasy saga, and if that doesn’t sound politically correct, it’s not meant to. Recommended for all ages.

Empty World by John Christopher

A teenage boy loses his family in a car crash and is taken in by his grandparents. Some months later he loses so much more – everyone. An unusual disease breaks out in Europe, first affecting the old, but then causing rapid ageing in the young. Attempts are made to contain the disease, but due to the fact that the symptoms don’t show up until days after infection, it spreads across continents, eventually wiping out the world. There are a tiny fraction of survivors, all in their early to mid teens – an age where the immune system and the development of the human organism are in a sort of optimal balance.

This sounds like a fairly typical apocalyptic tale, but the strength is in the telling. It’s the story of one teenage boy and his struggle to survive and find companionship. This may be marketed as a children’s book, but there is nothing cotton-wooly about the events that transpire. You would be hard-pressed to find a children’s movie as harrowing as this. Christopher portrays life with a keen sense of realism, examing loss, the hostility of life, and the relationships between young people that have been freed from the restraining guidance of adults. In the end, what wins – our humanity or inhumanity? A short, strong novel – one of my favourites by this author.

Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien

Back in school, we read (or were forced to read) various novels as part of English class. Mostly, I found them incredibly boring, and a drudgery. How Many Miles to Babylon, I Am David, Of Mice and Men, etc. – books that were, for the most part, too sophisticated and intellectual for a boy in his early to mid teens. These book choices no doubt contributed to me being unable to view reading as a pleasurable past-time. That all changed when Z for Zachariah became the class novel. I credit this book as the catalyst that got me into reading, and I’ve never looked back.

Ann Burden lives in a secluded valley with her family, when a nuclear war happens. Her mother and father head out in the car, to see what’s going on in the neighbouring town, and they never return. Beyond the valley, all is dead and lifeless. For some reason, the valley is untouched by the nuclear fallout – not a miracle, but a meteorological mystery. Ann now lives alone, thinking that she might be the last person in the world – except for the farm animals. Then one day, months later, she sees a column of smoke in the distance – a camp-fire. Someone is coming. Who is this mysterious traveller? How can he move about unaffected? And will he be friend or foe?

What a terrific set-up for a rivetting story. This is the third time I’ve read Z for Zachariah. It’s still great. Athough marketed as a children’s novel, it’s a very grown-up story that doesn’t pull its punches. At times, I wanted to shake Ann, for her excessive fear and her inability to be ruthless when something needed doing. But this only served to illustrate how much the author really drew me into the story, and how well he was able to portray the predicament of a sensible, moral girl whose whole world had been turned upside down.

Interestingly, I learned that the author died while writing the final chapter of this novel. His family finished it for him, and the book was published posthumously. Highly recommended.

The Blueprint by Will Hadcroft

Liam Creedy is knocked out in a nasty accident at school. When he comes to, he finds that everything has changed. For a start, he is seeing in black and white. Oddly, though, his own body remains in colour. Flashes of colour also manifest occasionally in other people, but for the most part they are uniformly back and white. Patrick Freeman High has changed even more radically. The school crest now features a fingerprint enclosed by a “no entry” sign, as if to say “No individual identity.” Prefects have become a kind of school police force. Corridors are more like streets, classrooms more like workplaces, and there is no exit to the outside world. In this strange self-enclosed microcosm of society, Liam has one friend, the strange Mr Samson, who tells him enigmatically: “Find the blueprint and change it. Only then will you find the way out.”

It’s clear that the author is using a lot of symbolism. The story is a vehicle for exploring the faults of the education system, its misuse as a means of indoctrination, ensuring that the population thinks a certain way. And the end result of this way of thinking, symbolised by a millstone inscribed with the words “Cause and Effect” rolling down a distant mountain towards the school, is the destruction of us all.

I can get on board with Hadcroft’s thinking to some extent. Like the author, I’m a fierce individualist, which makes me perceptive to the problems caused by mass herd-conformity. People work like crazy to buy like crazy, and this sort of attitude is gradually assassinating the planet. Religious hypocrisy and the pointlessness of war are touched upon in the book. I did find Hadcroft’s stance a little confusing at times, but while reading I was constantly analysing where we both differed.

I think my views would have been more in line with the author’s a few years ago, when I was reading a lot of conspiracy material. But these days, I see the competitive nature of life as something natural – a sort of stratification process, with winners and losers, a process that is mirrored in the animal kingdom. Although we fight against injustice, I don’t see a world without power struggles and exploitation as something that’s even possible. Hence, I don’t see the world we have in quite so dark terms as the author maintains. Even though we are undoubtedly indoctrinated in early life, it’s also true that the world today is so full of exciting education resources, if we would only reach out and take them – rather than spending our evenings wallowing in front of a television set watching soap operas. The real root of the problem is that many people simply don’t wish to learn. In fact, I would say that the TV is a far bigger source of indoctrination than the education system. I see television as the modern replacement for religion. It’s what people use to fill a hole in their lives; meanwhile it subliminally shapes their views and opinions.

I happen to know of the author’s personal religious convictions, so it tickled me when the protagonist had an argument with his teacher about evolution. The author takes the view that evolution is a lie, but the anecdote supplied in the story simply fails to deal properly with the issue. Today, for evolution to be false, there would either have to be a massive worldwide scientific conspiracy, or mass stupidity among scientists. While there is certainly a religious agenda against evolution, motivated entirely by a need to defend an inflexible dogma (which the author himself admits), the same accusation cannot be levelled at the scientific community, whose aim is simply to formulate the best theory from the available evidence.

Fans of the television series The Prisoner will notice a deliberate nod to the show in the design of the book’s cover. Elements of the story are also reminiscent of Life on Mars and Quantum Leap. The Blueprint is an enjoyable story, extremely well written, with an intelligent and thought-provoking subtext.

Branded by Robert Swindells

Put yourself in the shoes of young teenage boy, Dale Ward. You’ve got a mum, a dad, a younger sister called Kayleigh and an older brother called Gavin. Life is fairly typical for you, until one day the police arrest your older brother for raping and murdering a girl in an alley – a girl who was one of many. Gavin is found guilty and put in prison for a long time. The press have a field day with you and your family. Your family goes into witness protection. Suddenly you’re no longer Dale Ward but Glen Parish. On the surface, your life seems normal again. But underneath, you know you’re the younger brother of a serial killer.

What an absolutely enthralling premise for a novel. How do you reconcile the loving brother you’ve always know with the monster who brutally murdered girls? Why did he do what he did? Will you grow up to be just like him? How will anyone tell Kayleigh? Are you and your family safe in our new lives, or will the press hunt you down again?

You’ve got to hand it to Swindells. He can pick really his ideas. I’ve enjoyed all of his young adult novels. There’s a grit and an honesty to them that I really appreciate, and this one is no different.

The only downside I found was that, for some reason, Swindells is pulling of a Cormac McCarthy act with this novel. McCarthy (The Road, No Country for Old Men) is known for making some strange decisions with punctuation, such as omitting all quotations marks. Swindells mimics the style here. It doesn’t work for me. In fact, I don’t know that it works for McCarthy, either. All it really does is add a bit of confusion between dialogue and narration, occasionally breaking the flow of reading. Just a small gripe. Otherwise, highly recommended.

The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

James “Slippery Jim” diGriz is a master criminal living in a near-totalitarian future society. Using his own cunning, and with the help of disguises and gadgets, he outfoxes the lawmen and gets away with the loot … until now. We begin with a bank heist that goes wrong, putting diGriz in the hands of the police. It looks like it’s all over. But then Harold Inskipp, of the elite law enforcement agency the Special Corps, seeing the potential of diGriz, puts him in the agency’s employ. diGriz, who is in fact the hero of the story, changes his criminal ways (sort of) and starts working on the right side of the law. Soon, he ends up on the trail of another master criminal, one who is in the process of secretly building a battleship to wreak havoc across the galaxy. In summary, the story is sort of like James Bond in space. You have the gadgets, the battles, intrigue, betrayal, sensuality.

I had problems with this novel. First, I found myself not entirely warming to James diGriz. It wasn’t so much that he was a criminal. It was all the self-justification of his crimes. He won’t commit murder, but he will lie and steal his way through life, and see himself as quite a moral guy. He is a romanticised outlaw, and there’s just something false about him. Secondly (and this is purely a matter of what you’re looking for in a story), the aspects of the story involving technology and trickery and cunning just didn’t do it for me. There was a hollowness running through it that made me feel like quitting at a few points. Three quarters done, I kept reading purely to finish what I had started.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the closing chapters blew me away. Suddenly The Stainless Steel Rat became a story about people (which is exactly the kind of fiction I like). The cracks in diGriz’s armour were beginning to show. He was in serious danger of losing his way entirely, of partnering up with the very person he had set out to arrest – a power-mad violent sociopath, no less. Furthermore, the sociopath wasn’t allowed to become pure evil personified. Harry Harrison delved into the past, dredging up the things that shape a person into what he becomes, good or bad. Great stuff.

There are eleven Stainless Steel Rat books, of which this is the first. That total doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence. It feels like the old scenario that we’ve seen countless times with TV shows. When the producers know they’re onto a good thing, they just keep churning out more and more to fill an audience demand, regardless of how little steam there is left in the original vision. Nevertheless, I might jump into the Stainless Steel Rat universe again sometime. This one was worth reading.

The Lotus Caves by John Christopher

When John Christopher wrote The Tripods trilogy in the 1960s, it was a turning point for the author. As one who had written only for adults in the the earlier part of his career, he now wrote almost exclusively for children. The Lotus Caves is the children’s novel that immediately followed The Tripods.

This is a moon adventure, something that perhaps has limited appeal today, but would have been really exciting in the year of publication, 1969, the same year as the first manned moon landing. From a 60s perspective, the novel envisions a fairly gritty possible future, with a mining colony established on the moon and entire families living within a huge domed structure called The Bubble. Lives are a little colourless in comparison to Earth. Commodities are always in limited supply, so lifestyles of conservation are encouraged, where every little thing is important – in stark contrast to the affluence that’s possible on Earth. An artificial lake with its own fish is provided, to make the families feel more at home. But for some of the young, the moon has always been their home. Born there, and destined to remain until their parents have finished their contracts, the young nevertheless long to visit the blue world they’ve only ever seen in books and videos.

Marty is one such teenager. Bored with life in The Bubble, he ends up getting into a bit of mischief with his new friend Steve. Discovering a passkey accidentally left in the ignition of a lunar crawler, the boys take hold of a rare opportunity to travel far and wide across the lunar landscape. Their first destination is First Station, the now abandoned predecessor to The Bubble, where they discover the diary of a colonist who went missing under mysterious circumstances, telling stories of a vision of a strange impossible flower on the moon. Marty and Steve go in search of the mystery. From that point on in, we leave mundane science fiction behind and grasp the reins of fantasy. For under the surface of the moon is a bizarre plant-like entity who welcomes the boys and never wants them to leave.

When I was reading this novel, I couldn’t help but wonder if Christopher’s favourite theme of mind-manipulation would make an appearance, since I had already seen featured in The Tripods, The Guardians, The Prince in Waiting, and A Dusk of Demons. Yes, it’s here, too. Perhaps “social conditioning” is a better word to describe Christopher’s obsession. This time the conditioning comes not from a metal mesh embedded in the brain, but from an external force that obtains obedience by creating feelings of peace and happiness. It’s the human will versus the emotions in a battle for freedom.

A criticism purely on personal taste: I found the story a bit too wacky. I’m not a great fan of the fantasy genre, and The Lotus Caves ultimately abandoned its sci-fi beginnings in favour of something completely “out there.” That said, I found the novel to be an enjoyable worthwhile adventure.