The Realms Thereunder
At first glance, this book looks like it’s going to be fairly clichéd. On their 13th birthdays, a boy and a girl find themselves crossing over into a hidden subterranean kingdom under the surface of Great Britain, where they are caught up in an epic conflict between good and evil, asked to do a task only they can complete. But though it’s firmly in the English fantasy tradition (and intentionally so), this book feels anything but predictable. On the contrary, it drew me in until I didn’t want to put it down.
To mix things up a bit, Lawhead tells two stories simultaneously – Daniel and Freya’s underground adventure as teens, and the beginnings of their involvement as young adults in a new eruption in the ancient good-versus-evil conflict. Meanwhile, a third character, a detective named Alex who investigates scenes of supernatural conflict, discovers patterns of violence and suicide in a Scottish village and heads north to check it out. In spite of the fact that the author is thus essentially telling four stories here, the book’s pacing never falters. Each time the narrative switched settings or perspectives, I was hooked in immediately. Though the three modern narratives are extremely different in feel – with Daniel drawn into a Faerie world, Alex out monster-hunting, and Freya undergoing truly creepy mind control – I still sensed that the author was in control of each of them, and that the variations in tone were intentional. Even though the word-to-word writing style was only satisfactory rather than stellar (occasionally I really wondered what the editor was thinking!), I felt that the plot was well-crafted and the pacing excellently executed.
I enjoyed the book’s use of various English myth/legend traditions – the “realms thereunder” are connected with Anglo-Saxon culture, while the world Daniel visits is very much an English Faerie-land. (The book’s title is actually taken from The Ballad of the White Horse – huge bonus points for that!) I could tell that the adventurous tale was supported with plenty of solid research. I also enjoyed the author’s development of his characters. Daniel and Freya felt unique, rather than simply being the obligatory boy-and-girl main characters. Indeed, though the story is in part about a young teen boy and girl, and the book will doubtless drawn teen readers, it has a very broad appeal – it’s being marketed as adult fiction, and I think it will please both teen and adult readers equally.
Unfortunately, this book is only the first in a trilogy, and this appears to be one of those trilogies where the reader is left with about a million questions at the end of the first book. There were several moral questions left unresolved, not to mention a whole host of mysterious plot points. Indeed, the end of this volume, while completing the story of 13-year-old Daniel and Freya, leaves their story as adults barely started, making for an enticing ending. I wanted to read the sequel immediately, but unfortunately I’ll have to wait another year!