If you ask any bookseller the most important feature needed to attract the buyer to the book in the first instance is the cover. Sometimes it is a feature of the cover that tells the potential reader what the boards are likely to contain such as the ‘green-spine’ Corgis or the Gollancz ‘yellow-jackets’ (younger readers look them up, please, they are part of the history of literature). Later, when printing techniques allowed for full colour covers, talented artists produced sometimes exquisite cover illustrations. Often the artists would have a distinct style and it was easy to distinguish between a Richard Powers, a Jim Burns or a Chris Foss cover with no problem. Some collected books just for the covers. It was cheaper than collecting original artwork. In the digital age, publishers are always looking for ways to cut costs. Although some artists still produce magnificent artwork digitally for covers there is an increasing trend for it to be ‘designed’. These can be stunning and eye-catching, which is still the purpose of the cover. This is not always the case. P.M. Scrayfield’s quadrilogy of books all have the same, unexciting cover. It does the book a disservice.
The quality of writing within the book is good without being spectacular. It is the kind of prose you might expect in an average fantasy novel. ‘The North Beyond’ refers to the whole set of books of which this is the first part and ‘Numirantoro’ is a principle character.
The world consists of two disparate countries bordered by wastelands left over from wars in the past. One community, Gwent y’m Aryframan, is basically agrarian providing much of the food for both. The other, Caradward, has more of an industrial base, making tools that the first cannot produce. For a long time, this has been a mutually beneficial arrangement. Children from each country also spend part of their formative years between the ages of twelve and sixteen fostered in the other country. The idea is to promote understanding of another way of life and of neighbouring customs. Often this results in marriages between the two countries.
After their time in Caradward, Ardeth and his sister, Salfronardo, return home. Ardeth is destined to marry and remain a farmer while his sister marries Arythalt and moves to live in Caradward. Their daughter is the Numirantoro of the title and this book is mostly about her growing up and falling in love before various tragedies strike the families. In the meantime, the character of Caradward is changing as unscrupulous people work their way into positions of power and begin to dismantle what has been good about the relationship between the two countries.
I do, however, have a few issues with this book. The first is annoying. The names are very long and in most societies, there are diminutives that are used either as a sign of affection or just that it trips of the tongue more easily. Throughout this volume, the full names are used. It makes it harder for the reader to remember and identify with the characters. The second is the initial chapter which is really a prologue. A nameless person is on his own surviving in a wilderness. Chapter 2 takes us away from him. We never go back and it is very unclear how this fits in with the rest of the novel.
The third is more serious. In any novel or story, each scene or chapter needs to move the story along and have a purpose. If it doesn’t, it can be removed without harming to overall work. This particular novel covers a period of perhaps twenty-five years. It is the whole life of the title character (up until the birth of the one in the next book), yet the story starts some five years before Numirantoro is born. Yes, background can be useful in understanding the society in which a fantasy is set, especially when it differs from the known, but the time span is too much to put into one volume. Another adage often handed out to novice writers is ‘show, don’t tell’. This becomes difficult when covering such a time-span. As a result, the book is more a narration rather than an exciting, fast-paced story. The characters are not given enough space to develop. I didn’t feel the sympathy for the characters that made me want to care what happened to them and they didn’t come sufficiently alive.
There is a trilogy worth of plot here crammed into three hundred pages. The effect is to reduce the impact of the novel as a whole. There are interesting ideas here which need exploring in greater depth but they become submerged in the narrative. With a bold editor, this could have been a more interesting volume.
(pub: Pen Press, Brighton, UK, 2012. 309 page paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78003-489-8)
NB Pen Press ceased trading in 2014 so you might want to try below:
check out website: www.thenorthbeyond.co.uk/