The North Beyond: Part 1: Numirantoro by P. M. Scrayfield (book review).

February 23, 2016 | By | 4 Replies More

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.

NorthBeyondP1

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.

Pauline Morgan

February 2016

(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/

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Category: Books, Fantasy

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  1. avatar Andrew Moffat says:

    Couldn’t disagree more with this review. Numirantoro held me from start to finish, and I immediately dived into the second part of the story. I found the writing elegant and engaging, and the characters complex and believable. I had no problem with the pacing – although it took a few chapters to adjust to the time passing between scenes, the author’s intentions then became clear and the desire to see where the book was going made it all the more readable. Bear in mind that this is the first part of a single story, not, as incorrectly stated here, the first novel in a ‘quadrilogy’. In fact, looking back over the book in the light of the comments above, I am impressed again at how the story skips along the timeline, and how in each successive chapter we are able to re-engage with the characters at a later stage in their lives and appreciate the importance of the scene, before being whisked further along again. I think the writing that makes that possible is better than ‘average’.

    I found Scrayfield’s creation of a deep culture to be very convincing: I always felt there was more to the peoples of the novel’s world and their histories than was described directly in the text. I loved the traditional alliterative word-game played by the inhabitants of Gwent y’m Aryframan, and the importance of crafts and creating works of art inherent in the story.

    Above all I felt that it was refreshing fantasy that strove to express the unity of a people and the landscape they inhabited, which for me has always been a cornerstone of the genre. There was no attempt to rehash the old Tolkienian tropes, and while the book and its successors deal with adult themes of life, birth, love and death they do so without resorting to the horrific gore of recent fantasy heavyweights. Female characters were empowered without being leather-clad kick-ass babes. In this, and in the beautiful descriptions of scenery, the books reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin, and I’m not sure there’s much higher praise than that…

    I’m not sure why the above review comes to such uncharitable conclusions. Yes, the names are unusual, but that’s partly because they’re not just minimally-altered forms of real-world names, and seem to follow an internal logic of their own. Did it affect my enjoyment of the book? Absolutely not. Yes, the prologue is not returned to in part one, but again, it’s a four part story, and, without giving anything away… keep reading.

    Finally, in response to the lengthy (a full quarter of the review) comments regarding the cover I would refer the review’s author to a well-known adage on the subject of books and their covers.

    I think The North Beyond is a hidden gem, and it would be a great shame if people were dissuaded from giving it a try on the basis of this review. I hope these comments can offer a degree of counterbalance.

  2. avatar Uncle Dick says:

    Yes, there are four volumes to The North Beyond and I found it increasingly gripping as I read through it. A good story and well written. I have seen worse covers too. All in all well worth reading right to the end of volume four.

  3. avatar Di Hatherley says:

    A fascinating, edifying literary journey through all four volumes of The North Beyond is essential to form personal conclusions about the questions posed in Numirantoro: is it a story of two dimensions, one world, or one dimension, two worlds? Is it truth or legend, history or fantasy, past or future? I found Numirantoro to be a compelling, engrossing, introductory read, quickly becoming immersed in the characters of Caradward and Gwent y’m Aryframan and couldn’t wait to read the remaining three volumes.

    The significance of the intriguing first chapter of Numirantoro unravels throughout The North Beyond; all characters are skilfully developed and details of significant events deftly worked into the characters’ inspirational journeys, the descriptions of the terrain are particularly powerful and beautifully written.

    I read the final page of The North Beyond with great reluctance but uplifted and filled with a powerful sense of optimism. The four volumes, with their easily identifiable covers, sit on my bookshelf, filled with post-it notes, marking passages of particularly remarkable writing to which I know I shall return time and time again.

  4. avatar Moya Mayes says:

    I came across this review when browsing and found myself reflecting on the different ways readers react to the same book. I had bought “The North Beyond”intending to give it as a present (I am not a fantasy fan) and was so engaged by it held on to it for myself. TNB is not, in my mind, Fantasy as it is usually defined but I do hope Pauline Morgan keeps reading to the end. She may well find her opinion of the book changing a lot and even come to realise what may lie behind the cover design.

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