The Greenstone Grail, the first book in the Sangreal Trilogy, introduced us to Nathan Ward and his mother Annie. Nathan is an ordinary boy except for his extraordinary powers, which first attract and then help him defeat various supernatural creatures as he searches through several worlds for the Greenstone Grail and brings it safely back to the guardianship of Bartelmy, a strange and friendly fellow who seems to have lived for several millennia and has some mystical powers of his own. Followers of Arthurian mythology will be unsurprised to learn that books two and three are also quests for artifacts, namely the titular sword and The Poisoned Crown. Hemingway enjoys being unpredictable, however, and mixes in modern-day life and even some science fiction elements to keep things interesting. This is not your Classics professor's Grail quest, not by a long shot.
If The Greenstone Grail was the end of Nathan's childhood, The Sword of Straw is the beginning of his adolescence; its focus is on his first real romantic interest, a princess named Nell whom he meets in the course of his oneironautic travels. Fortunately, Hemingway is quite aware that updating an old legend comes with its share of clichés, and she treats the inevitability of Nell's royal status with wry amusement, as in this exchange when Nathan tells Bartelmy what's going on:
"There's a city," Nathan said, "called Carbonek, or Wilderslee. I think one's the city and one's the kingdom, but I don't know which is which. most of the people have left, and the king's an invalid. He picked up the sword, and it bit him—stabbed him, I mean—and now the wound won't heal, and everything's under a curse."
"Stories don't change" —Bartelmy sighed— "wherever you are. Does this king have a daughter?"
"How did you guess?"
"They always do." (p. 91)
Soon Nathan's dreams begin alluding to a sword made of stroar (pronounced, in their part of England, much like "straw," hence the title), a superhard magical metal found only on the dying world of Eos, where the Grail was made. He guesses that this is the sword that gave the king his unhealing wound, and starts taking steps to obtain it and protect it from the people who seek the Grail, the sword, and a thorny crown of iron in order to develop a tremendous spell that could save—or destroy—Eos, and possibly Nathan's world as well.
As Nathan's time is taken up by the princess, the sword, and his first term at boarding school, his best friend Hazel becomes involved in some adolescent drama of her own when she casts a spell to get back at a girl who flirts with the boy Hazel likes. It quickly becomes clear that she's bitten off more than she can chew. Her story weaves through Nathan's, a cautionary tale about the times and ways to make use of power. Nathan also comes to real harm in the course of his quest, in addition to the usual brink-of-death escapes that even non-magical teenagers are so prone to. Hemingway, like a concerned parent, makes it very clear that undertaking such difficult tasks can have grave consequences even for people who are driven by destiny.
Many questions about Nathan are left unanswered by the end of the book, most particularly with regard to his parentage. Annie admits the truth of Nathan's seemingly immaculate conception to Bartelmy, but refuses to tell Nathan. The legends surrounding the sword in Carbonek all say that only a pure-hearted prince can touch it without harm; the tales they tell on Eos say it must be someone descended from the Grandir, the legendary leader who carved the Grail and forged the sword and crown. Undoubtedly these factors will all come together in the third installment, perhaps with a twist and perhaps not. There's nothing really resembling suspense here, partly because the rhythms of a quest trilogy are so deeply ingrained in most of us and partly because Hemingway just isn't terribly good at it. The dramatic revelation near the end of The Sword of Straw is noteworthy mostly because the reader figured it out ages ago and is wondering how any of the characters missed what was right in front of their faces.
If uniqueness of plot isn't what keeps readers coming back for more, characterization is. Annie's single-mom concerns for her son's well-being and her own romantic prospects (unfortunately and ironically limited to the pathologically skeptical police inspector who comes by every time there's another suspicious incident but refuses to believe in supernatural explanations; you know the one) are presented in a kind and thoughtful light. At one point she almost tells Nathan to bring Nell home for dinner sometime, and then thinks wistfully that most parents probably have an easier time with such things. Bartelmy is rather like a laid-back Tom Bombadil, quietly observing all that goes on and stirring the pot occasionally when it seems the thing to do, and his counterpart, the unsubtly named Father Crowley, is deliciously eeeevil in a well-practiced way that sets him up to be a formidable foe. Nathan also faces a dark double of a sort, a bully named Damon who becomes infected with a nasty magical urge to do real damage and selects him—not at all coincidentally—as a target; but even Damon is treated with sympathy, though not so much as to imply that he's totally off the hook for his actions. So much effort goes into developing the new supporting characters that Hazel almost fades into the background and Nathan has to work hard to be more than a vehicle for action scenes, but in the end it all balances out.
The series is clearly intended for young adult readers, but it rarely talks down, and adults will have few difficulties getting into it; likewise, it's written by a Brit, for and about Brits, drawing from the deepest well of British myth, but international audiences should have no trouble following along. The third installment will be the one that determines whether this is a genuinely novel homage to Arthuriana or simply a solid and serious midlist trilogy. Right now it hovers tantalizingly on the brink. Here at last is the suspense! One can only hope the outcome is not too predictable.
Rose Fox is the result of a genetic experiment to create the perfect writer. Having escaped from the laboratory, she now roams the streets of New York, looking for inspiration in gutters and rainbows.
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