Hidden Treasures: The Heir to the North by Steven Poore
|Book Name:||The Heir to the North|
|Formatt:||Paperback / Ebook|
|Release Date:||October 11, 2015|
Hidden Treasures – A series that reviews small press and digital-first fantasy works.
“I will not rest until I have broken the curse Malessar has set upon Caenthell. Whether it takes one year, ten, or ten hundreds of years, I swear I will revenge the High King.”
There are some books you open up and settle into like a favourite pair of weekend slippers. Wait, that probably gives you too much insight into my habits on a Saturday night. Let’s say, like your favourite old fandom hoodie you’ve worn 100 times but still love. It’s warm. It’s comfortable. The writing is smooth, the setting familiar; it feels like a book you might have read years ago when you were just discovering fantasy, before you grew jaded by wonder and started demanding that everything should be gritty. The Heir to the North was like that, for me.
And then it wasn’t.
The beauty of this book, I think, is that it will work on two kinds of readers. Those of you who are just starting out on the marvellous journey that is fantasy will find a cracking adventure story, one that will encourage you to explore further in the genre. And those of you who have read every fantasy novel published since Tolkien will appreciate the way the book plays with your expectations. Because it does start out very traditional, there’s no denying that. Long ago, an evil wizard cursed the entire North. The one man who escaped, now as close to immortal as makes no difference, is on a mission to break the curse and see the rightful heir restored. And a girl who wants to be a storyteller, despite the fact that Girls Aren’t Storytellers, is taken along to witness the quest; a quest that must surely end in a heroic battle between Good versus Evil and the reinstatement of an ancient kingdom. There are legends about dragons. There are ancient and possibly magical swords. You can’t really get much more traditional than this. Until…
Well. That would be telling.
Of course, even before the author starts mixing things up a bit, there are many aspects of this book that make it stand out; otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this review. First of all, it’s really nice to see a girl as the protagonist of a traditional fantasy. I can imagine…well, not this precise book, for reasons, but a very similar book being written with a male protagonist, so hurrah for putting a female character at the centre of it. And Cassia is a really engaging main character who is strong in a well-rounded variety of ways: yes, she’s quite physically capable and becomes more so over the course of the book, but she’s also resilient and loyal and curious about the world. It’s easy to empathise with her difficult situation as a girl who longs to be a storyteller, forced to follow her nasty-piece-of-work father around and collect the coins he gathers by telling his own stories, only to watch him spend them all on booze. Even in the early stages of the book, where things are just being set up and there’s no hint of the twists ahead, Cassia is an interesting enough character to hold your attention.
(Side Note: Admittedly, Cassia is pretty much the only female character of any significance. All the other important characters are men. But the fact that the entire story is told through Cassia’s eyes and framed by her concerns mitigates that, to a certain extent. There’s no denying that she’s in a male-dominated society, which means that on her travels she inevitably encounters more men than women. I’m always torn, in these situations, between, ‘Fair enough, it’s realistic for the society being presented’ and ‘But why did it have to be yet another patriarchal society where girls either have to stay at home doing chores or be the special snowflake who rebels? That’s what our imaginations are for! I WANT MORE WOMEN!’ Suffice to say, though I usually prefer an equal number of male and female characters in my reading, in this particular case it didn’t bother me.)
There is also a wonderfully rich weight of history embedded in Poore’s worldbuilding. You expect that from epic fantasy, of course, but what makes it stand out here is the theme of storytelling: how the stories that are told shape our perceptions of the past, how they can inspire people, how they can change the course of events. As we learn more about Cassia’s world through her eyes, we come across layers upon layers of what is remembered and forgotten. Stories and reality, past and present, all begin to converge until we’re not quite sure what is an objective truth and what is a subjective one. This is everything I would hope for from a book that deals with a storyteller as a central character, and it’s done very well.
The setting itself is much like the narrative, in that the story begins in pleasantly familiar quest territory – sparsely populated countryside with the occasional market town and godawful weather – and gradually becomes more unusual as the storyline does. It worked really well for me, in that respect, because it felt like a deliberate unfolding: we start out surrounded by things we know, just as Cassia does, but then we begin to meet stone armies in the wilderness, and labyrinthine libraries in the Imperial city, and ruined outposts defended by ghosts…not to mention a dragon who can become a man. Some readers may find the beginning rather on the slow side, but the action ramps up as the book progresses, and the final set piece is genuine inhale-it-through-your-eyeballs stuff.
And then, of course, we have those plot twists.
Look, I’m a modern reader. When confronted with an apparently traditional plot, these days, I assume there’s going to be some kind of twist along the way – so in all honesty, I did expect a fair bit of the unexpected. But Poore is clever enough to have anticipated those expectations and gone one step further. I’d make a good guess at what was going on, based on my knowledge of fantasy, and yep, I’d prove to be right…and then I’d turn out to be not quite right after all, because beyond the obvious leap that the author had encouraged me to make, there’d be a little extra twist waiting. It’s cleverly done. It’s great fun. And for me, it was the perfect balance between a traditional heroic epic and the element of subversion that we slipper-wearing long-time fantasy fans have come to expect.