Beyond the Burning Lands is the second book in John Christopher's Sword of the Spirits trilogy, after The Prince in Waiting (reviewed here). Often, the second book is a trilogy is a bit weak - without the newness of the first book, and without the dramatic climax of the third. No so here, however. I think that Beyond the Burning Lands is the strongest book in this strong series.
This installment picks up where the first book left off. Teenage Luke is marking time in the Sanctuary of the Seers, in danger after his half-brother Peter was named Prince of Winchester. Good news arrives, however. Peter wants to make a fresh start, and has invited Luke to return, promising his safety. Things go reasonably well for Luke in Winchester, as his brother's presumptive heir, until a tragedy strikes. In the aftermath, Luke is allowed to accompany an Expedition that sets out to explore beyond "the burning lands" (volcanic mountains, just now starting to calm after many years of activity).
The country on the other side (inhabited by the "Wilsh") has been completely separate from the England of Luke's city, and has developed very different customs. It takes some time for Luke to fit in, but an act of heroism secures his position. His return to Winchester, however, is filled with peril. All in all, this book is quite exciting, especially the ending. My heart was in my mouth (even though I knew it was book 2 of 3, and likely to turn out ok).
Beyond the Burning Lands has an epic feel to it, despite not being very long. There's a dangerous journey, a strange land with strange customs, a battle with a monster, and a romance. Characters display loyalty and bravery, though some commit betrayals. Hans the Dwarf, a servant to Luke, is a loyal friend, in the tradition of Samwise Gamgee of The Lord of the Rings series. Peter the Prince is a delightfully complex character, influenced by his love of a woman. Many of the supporting characters are strong, too, especially the two rivals to Luke and Peter in Winchester and Luke's two best friends. I found the presence of the gelatinous monster a bit jarring, in a story that otherwise featured the possible, but perhaps the monster stemmed from some genetic mutation, too.
John Christopher, though Luke, shows kids that many issues aren't black and white. For instance, the two societies, the English and the Wilsh, treat the polymufs (people born with genetic abnormalities in the aftermath of radiation) differently. Both Luke and the Wilsh King, Cymru, think the other somewhat uncivilized in their choices, but Luke comes to see value in the approaches of both sides. Luke also learns that the strict gender roles of his own country, and the automatic subservience of woman, are not universal. The role of Christians also plays a part, their nonviolence in a violent world dooming them to live upon the fringes of English society. In this installment, however, Luke encounters more than one Christian who he can respect.
I think that the strongest aspect of this series is the way, despite giving us Luke's first person perspective, Christopher is able to show us Luke's flaws and misconceptions. Luke remains a sympathetic character, one who cares about honor and promises, even as he is intolerant in regards to the polymufs, Christians, and women, because he simply doesn't know any better, and bears no malice. Here's an example:
"And also, I guessed, since he had done that which was pleasing to his wife's strange Christian conscience. Nor had I any doubt that the main urging for my recall had come from her. Her influence over him was plainly great and this was something to be remembered. I could not see why it should be so -- why a man should let any woman dominate his mind -- but the fact that one did not understand a thing was no reason for not weighing its effects." (Page 24)
I also enjoyed the continued references to artifacts from our own fallen society. At one point, Luke and his friend come across an old, decaying painting by a man named Rembrandt, and Luke marvels at the painter's talent. They also find "small cylinders of a fragile white material packed with dried grass. Or so it seemed, but the smell was not a grass smell; it had a peculiar aromatic richness." I'm not sure that cigarettes would be included in a book like this written today, but they made sense when this one was written in the 1970's. Similarly, I'm not sure today's readers will understand about the knobs labeled "BRIGHTNESS" and "CONTRAST" on a mysterious machine with a screen. But surely their parents can explain.
Christopher never talks down to his readers. He uses words like "immured" and "floundered" in passing. He doesn't explain the motives behind every action - he leaves readers to figure things out. And he doesn't shy away from dark passages, like:
"The hills rose about the town and above the hills the sky was red, a heavy crimson from which now and then spouted gouts of orange flame. Seeing this, I realized that darkness which they never truly knew, could be a comforting and friendly thing. They lived their lives under this ominous light and it was small wonder they were soured by it. And there were ugly sounds as well -- distant foreboding rumblings as the earth growled in pain." (Page 65)
I would be interested to see what young fans of today's modern children's epics, like the Inheritance series, would make of the Sword of the Spirits books. Despite their relatively slim length, these are more difficult reads than many of their longer successors. I sometimes found myself re-reading passages, to better understand, and I am a very experienced reader of post-apocalyptic fiction. Morally ambiguous, tautly written, and laced with violence and cruelty -- I can see why these books are out of print. But I think that it's a shame. Books like these are what turn kids into critical thinkers. And to that in the midst of edge of your seat adventure -- that is a real achievement.
Publication Date: 1971
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Reviews: The Bookian. Sam Riddleburger did a John Christopher week in November, and discussed the Sword of the Spirits series in this post.
Author Interviews: Sam Riddleburger also interviewed Sam Youd (Christopher's real name) during John Christopher Week.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.