Published by Solaris on May 10th 2016
A novel that will enchant readers of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman. The fantastical appears in the middle of 1920's Oxford as a young refugee looking to escape her grim reality rubs shoulders with two of the founding fathers of modern fantasy, Tolkien and Lewis.
1920s Oxford: home to C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien... and Anna Francis, a young Greek refugee looking to escape the grim reality of her new life. The night they cross paths, none suspect the fantastic world at work around them.
Anna Francis lives in a tall old house with her father and her doll Penelope. She is a refugee, a piece of flotsam washed up in England by the tides of the Great War and the chaos that trailed in its wake. Once upon a time, she had a mother and a brother, and they all lived together in the most beautiful city in the world, by the shores of Homer's wine-dark sea.
But that is all gone now, and only to her doll does she ever speak of it, because her father cannot bear to hear. She sits in the shadows of the tall house and watches the rain on the windows, creating worlds for herself to fill out the loneliness. The house becomes her own little kingdom, an island full of dreams and half-forgotten memories. And then one winter day, she finds an interloper in the topmost, dustiest attic of the house. A boy named Luca with yellow eyes, who is as alone in the world as she is.
That day, she’ll lose everything in her life, and find the only real friend she may ever know.
Next time someone asks me what a “beautiful story” is, I will tell them to read this. From the warm and smooth prose style, to the main character’s personality, and her narrative voice, to the plot – nearly everything about this story, made me feel like I was reading a fairytale.
Anna is a twelve year old girl who has recently escape to Oxford from Greece, when the Great War broke. She lost everything leaving Greece behind, including her mother, and now all she has left is her father and her doll, Pin, her only friend.
Anna is home schooled, and her father often has meetings with other Greek refuges at their house every week. During these meetings, Anna will at times go outside, and explore around the town to play. On one such night she travels a bit too far in the woods and witnesses the murder of a man. From that moment on, her whole world changes.
I found it a little difficult to give a brief plot outline for this story for two reason: first, because it was unclear at the beginning what the actual plot was, and second, because as this book is broken up into two parts, each part felt like a completely different story.
The first part is entitled “Jericho”, and it felt like I was reading a fairytale. No ifs, ands, or buts about it! I was waiting for the moment when she would go up in her attic, find a secret treasure chest or magical mirror or something, and would take her a mystical world where she would meet a wolf.
The story is told by Anna as she is twelve years old, and what an amazing voice she had. Paul Kearney perfectly captured that youth and innocence, from things like Anna thinking 30 years old, is old, to thinking that she is twelve, and it too old to get scared and can take care of her self. There is no way you will not fall in love with Anna, and immediately be sympathetic her.
It was because of Kearney’s writing as Anna, that I kept reading this story. The whole first part, pretty much until right before she witnesses the murder – and then at the very end – is extremely slow in terms of plot, and I frequently found myself wondering: where is this story was going? But because I loved Anna voice so much, and how she was telling her story, the pages just flew by!
The whole mood of the first part is that of fairytale as well. While Anna’s story of having to leave Greece and her current condition now are sad, the story is extremely uplifting with hope. With Kearny’s dream-like prose (as another review describer them) to her meetings and conversations with men like Jack and Roland, I was waiting for that moment when Anna would escape to fairyland world. That was not what happened though.
Part two is entitled “The Roads of England”, and while part one felt like I was reading a fairytale, part two felt quite different. Anna still has that same youthful, innocent voice, Kearney’s prose style is still the same, and it still felt like a fairytale… but it had a supernatural vibe to it, and was flitting with horror at times.
In this part, Anna finds herself running and trying to survive alone in the woods, and in the middle of old battle between the skinchangers and the Roadmen. While this plot is a little more obvious that the first part, it was still a little unclear where the story was going.
Throughout this story, there are many references to Greek mythology, Catholic and Christian religions, and other authors. For example: in this first part, Jack and Roland, are actually authors of two famous fantasy series, and those who are familiar with their works, may pick up on cool bits of information that other readers may not. Then there are also many references to Greek works and characters, such as Odysseus, that are much more obvious. The religious reference are in there just as much, but my knowledge of the Catholic and Christian religion is limited, so I cannot comment on the significance or cleverness of it, like I can with the authors or Greek mythology.
It was a lovely and beautiful story, but when it was all over, I still found myself wondering what the actual plot of the story was. I’m not saying there was no meaning to the story, but it essentially is a story about girl who moved to England from Greece, and meets a skin changer. It was that simple. There was one little twist at the end, but honestly, it is a basic, straight-forward story, and not much happens.
While I loved Anna’s conversations with Jack and Roland in the first part, in terms of the overall scope of the story, I wonder: what was the point of them was? I kept waiting for them to have a reappearance in the second part. And for that matter, I kept wondering what the point of entire first part was. It was great for character building, but I think the story would have been better if you cut the first part down to a couple of chapters and expand on part two – where the meat of the story was.
It was in this latter part that we start to learn the history of the skinchangerw and the Roadmen, and that was when the tension started to rise. But all that all felt rushed and brief compared to how long we took in the first part. Sadly, Kearney only skims the surface of the skinchangers and the Roadmen. I would have loved to have learned more of them, and it left me feeling frustrated that he left many questions unanswered; that he did not take the time to focus the story on that. The depth and detail that went into the building and setting up of Anna’s character, that I loved, but it was no where to be found in the part two’s world- building and the entire story’s plot. Weirdly, when I closed this book, it felt more like I had read a novella than an actual, full-length novel.
Even though this was not the story I was expecting, I still enjoyed the book the whole time; Kearney’s prose and Anna’s voice, make this a compelling story that is hard to put down. I believe that a lot of people while adore this story, but you know should before you go into it, that the story, while is lovely, is going to be a slow pace – and that may be a put off to some readers.