By Ian Beck
Published by Oxford
ISBN 978 0 19 275563 6
Novels set in fantasy worlds are all too often sprawling reads weighed down with geographical descriptions, odd names and confusing action. Ian Beck's The Hidden Kingdom weighs in at a comfortable 260 pages and focuses on a small group of people caught in a situation of dramatic change. Beck expertly creates the atmosphere of his fantasy land, but it is the characters that are at the forefront of this novel, not complicated geographical descriptions that slow the action down.
Is The Hidden Kingdom set in a feudal fantasy Japanese land? It could be, because the names and landscapes have a Japanese flavour. Young Prince Osamu is used to getting his own way, leading a pampered existence and having no problems. Beck plunges the reader right into the action on the first page as Osamu is woken by a faithful servant and told to get out of bed and flee his palace, which is under attack. The prince does not know what is going on and is reluctant to obey his servant.
A young female warrior called Lissa bursts into the room, and drags the prince out of his comfort zone. The two of them are outside the palace in a cold, icy landscape before Osamu gathers his strength to protest and ask questions. Lissa has no answers. All she knows is that the prince is in serious danger and has to flee for his life.
Beck slows down the pace after the two opening, action-packed chapters which keep the reader hooked. The focus now switches to Master Masumi, a humble potter, and Baku, his assistant. They are on a journey. Masumi has told Baku that they have something to deliver to Osamu, and warns the boy that their mission has to be secret. The two of them travel through a snowy landscape towards their mysterious destination. But the severity of the weather costs old Masumi his life, and Baku has to continue alone. Before Beck brings the three main characters together, all of them have to face exciting dangers.
Who or what is attacking Osamu's realm? It is slowly revealed that demons from the underworld of Hades have broken through into the earthly world. It is time for Osamu to rally the secret sentries of the Hidden Kingdom and protect his world. The only problem is that Osamu is nowhere near prepared for the enormous mission he has to undertake.
The Hidden Kingdom never backs away from the three central characters and what they have to face. Beck creates a wonderfully chilly atmosphere and background against which the story is played out, but it's the humans who matter in this novel.
All the elements of fantasy are there - a reluctant hero, a mystical land, a magic sword, demons and a feisty heroine. The Hidden Kingdom is a fantasy novel but Beck's unfussy and direct storytelling make it all very real.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com