Uh, so I wrote this review last year and’ve been to preoccupied to like, change it. Should be fine.
Sometimes you run across a book that defies expectations. When judging a book by its cover—which I do with some frequency, despite the old adage—you have to remember that the artist that designs the cover and the author that writes the book are very rarely the same person. So, when confronted by a cover that is the dark green of an old-growth forest, a smattering of trees and bushes that confirm this, a translucent gate that invokes thoughts of Tolkien, and a hind which is framed in a strange and haunting light: it is tempting to think that perhaps someone just read the title (in this case A Green and Ancient Light) and went from there, not bothering to read the actual story. In many such cases, despite my tendency to judge books by their covers, I find this to be true. In this case however, it is not.
A Green and Ancient Light
by Frederic S. Durbin
5 / 5 stars
This book was haunting, a beautifully crafted piece that awakened in me thoughts of childhood, Tolkien, and dreams of a mysterious and fantastic world.
This is a book written by Frederic S. Durbin, an author whom I’ve never read anything else by, never seen referenced by any other author I’ve read, and well, never even heard of, really. Though it took a little to get acquainted with his writing style (at least, that which is featured in this novel, and which I’ll get more to later), this was a sublime read, with an imaginative plot and beautifully crafted prose. I’d compare it to the likes of The Boy With the Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick, and The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi, which—while they suffered from multiple problems—were two of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read. But A Green and Ancient Light (AGaAL) fails to cave beneath these same issues. Instead it excels, becoming (so far) my favorite read of the year.
While I said that this invokes Tolkien, it does so not for his writings, exactly, but instead for what I relate to him. My childhood was a bit dark, a bit lonely. But it was mine. And honestly, I liked it that way. Tolkien—more specifically, The Hobbit—taught me to dream of the fantastical and unknown. It is of this that I think when reading AGaAL.
The story follows a young boy living in Europe, just after the outbreak of the second World War. I won’t give away the country; Durbin doesn’t either, keeping everything about it secret until the… well, until after the end of the story, in his post-reading remarks (how he does this I’ll get to in a minute). In all intents and purposes, however, the country doesn’t matter. The story is not about the war at all, but about the people—the regular, common folk—and something else, something in the wood. Something that most have forgotten.
The boy travels from the city to a seaside village, to visit his Grandmother for the summer. His father is, of course, off fighting in the war. His mother remains at home in the city with his younger brother (?).
Now we get to the heart of my problem with this book—and, really, my only problem: the use of names. And it’s not what you think.
The novel just doesn’t use any.
Instead, in place of a person’s name, the narrator simply uses a ______. Like Mrs. B______ or Colonel D________ or Postmaster R_________.
This made it really hard for me to keep track of who was who, especially in the early going. I ended up just making up names to fill in each blank just so I could keep the characters straight. Don’t get me wrong—I have every idea why Durbin does this, and it is a good reason at that.
He does it to protect the country’s anonymity. Why does it matter so much? Well, depending on which nation this boy is from, the reader my find it difficult to keep from judging him, his father, his people. And Durbin doesn’t want this. To quote a passage from early on:
‘I won’t tell you my name or that of the village where I spent that spring and summer when I was nine. I won’t because you should realize there were towns just like it and boys just like me all around the sea—and in other countries beyond the mountains, and all over the world.’
And he’s right. It legitimately does not matter. I mean, I had my suspicions throughout the text. I even figured it out somewhere around halfway through. But this didn’t change anything. The boy is a boy. His father is his father. The people are still just people. Everything else, it doesn’t matter.
This book was sublime. From the cover, to the text, to the story, to the feelings it invoked in me. To the one thing I didn’t like. I read it once and then quickly read it again. And I’m unashamed to say I teared up both times.
If you enjoy fantasy, or even if you don’t really, this is a must read. I will say though, I have met people who didn’t care for this book. I don’t get why, but I’ll attempt to explain. My friend is really into Dark Fantasy; I suppose this wasn’t grim enough for her. My dad is weird; the reasons he likes or dislikes books no longer surprise me. So, yeah, I guess it is possible for you to not enjoy this. Hypothetically.
If you’re not sure just read an excerpt at the library or the bookstore or on a kindle. If you don’t hate it give it a try. If nothing else, it has one hell of a cover.
5/5 stars, best of the year thus far. A must read for fans of Tolkien, Tad Williams, C. S. Lewis and any fans of a more classic fantasy style.