Monday, December 19, 2011
The Hidden Kingdom by Ian Beck
The young prince Osamu is dragged from his palace bed in the dead of night and told to flee for his life. With only his nurse's daughter, Lissa, to help him survive, he is thrust from his pampered existence into a hostile, snowy world - where the secret armies of the hidden kingdom are waiting for him to lead them . . .
I've said it before, I'm a seasonal reader, so The Hidden Kingdom set during a tough winter really let me curl my toes and luxuriate in the heating on the train and at home in the lounge as I read it.
The scene is set very quickly. We meet the spoilt, stubborn, slightly clueless young prince Osamu as he's tumbled out of bed by his servant, dressed hurriedly and ushered out of the palace at top speed in the company of Lissa, a young woman only a bit older than himself, who had been trained for one thing only: to keep him safe.
As they flee he realises that the palace is coming under attack but he has no idea who it is that's attacking or what's going on. Mostly he's grumpy as he's being treated roughly by an inferior person and resents that tremendously. Lissa is unable to tell him more about the attacks. He should have an inkling as to what's going on and she's to keep him safe, but more than that, she's not prepared to do.
Simultaneously we meet a young apprentice potter, Baku, who is travelling with the master potter Master Masumi, who is en route to meet the young prince Osamu who admires Masumi's delicate workmanship. But things go very wrong. As they travel, winter closes in and the master potter reveals to Baku that there are bad things afoot when they come across stories of the palace being attacked. When his master dies in his sleep, it is up to Baku to make sense of the world and follow the mysterious snow maiden that came to him, urging him to be strong and follow her guidance. Baku is the everyman in this story, through him we see the developments but we also realise that even though he is the everyman, he has courage and honour. He is not high born, and it is abundantly clear that his destiny and task is more than what it seems.
As Lissa and Osamu struggle onwards through the snow and cold, Osamu keeps rejecting the legends of the demons that his tutors and ministers pressed on him as he grew up. He thinks that is all they are: legends and stories to tell small children to keep them quiet and scared. He refuses to believe that it can be real, refuses too to believe that they are responsible for the attack on his palace, for the reason he's on the run for his life.
Slowly, ever so slowly, it dawns on the spoilt awful princeling that the legends are no mere legends. That he is the one to face up against the Emissary, to fight the battle to decide the fate of the world. That it is his destiny, his fate, to do this.
Ian Beck uses very strong imagery throughout the novel - both visual and sensory, which I found very pleasing. I apologise if that sounds pedantic and a bit toff-like, but when you can sit under a blanket reading about snow and ice storms and lift your head and almost smell the scent of the army's meal they are cooking before their final confrontation with the forces of darkness, you know you are on to some good writing.
The author uses a pared down language that is still quite descriptive and lyrical, bringing to mind Across The Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearne. The world The Hidden Kingdom is set in is not our world, but it could easily be our world. It has hints of Japan and China about it but it is wholly it's own thing and I liked it - it was strange enough to lift it out of the mundane and yet comforting enough for me to not feel that I've been cast adrift across the world I know nothing of, have no point of reference.
I would highly recommend The Hidden Kingdom to read now, in winter. It's going to be one of those books I want to re-read often because of setting and story.
This is the superb video they created for The Hidden Kingdom and I do think they've managed to find the most gorgeous girl to play Lissa. Just perfect.
The Hidden Kingdom has been out since October, and although it is quite slender (my only sadness as I wanted it to last longer) it goes to prove that epic writing does not have to be seven hundred pages long.