I recently read, for what I think is the first time (though there's a chance that I read it back in the mid-70s), the first book in John Christopher's middle grade science fiction trilogy Sword of the Spirits: The Prince in Waiting (1970). I was inspired to read it after reading a review on Sam Riddleburger's blog in November, and due to my fond memories of Christopher's wonderful Tripods series.
The Prince in Waiting starts out a bit slowly. Well, not so much slow as threatening to be about things that I'm not interested in. You have a boy chatting with a dwarf. The dwarf is forging a sword, and the boy is lamenting not being chosen to participate in a Contest involving swords and jousting on horseback. No electricity or modern conveniences of any kind are in sight. It's like something out of Arthurian times, except for the presence of the dwarfs, and the polymufs, which are a race of deformed people who work as servants/slaves. Slowly, however, hints begin to appear that, in fact, this is not a society from the past, but a society from the future, after some great Disaster has overtaken the world.
And that, for me, is the hook that kept me reading (as I mentioned in my recent review of Exodus), and will have me tracking down the other two books in the trilogy. I find endlessly fascinating the notion that all memory of our society could be gone, with people left to guess at what we were like based on looking at the crumpled rubble of once-tall buildings and the occasional scrap of surviving printed material. I enjoy seeing which customs survive, and which disappear, in the author's interpretation. In this story, the Christians are a peripheral, struggling sect, looked down upon for their odd beliefs. Most people follow the guidance of "Spirits", as translated by a small cadre of "Seers". Armed battles between the cities of the land (the dregs of England) take place frequently, though certain customs of honor also endure. Our hero, Luke, is the second son of a "Captain" (basically Knights who serve the Prince who rules each city). Luke learns, however, that he has a destiny beyond that of being a Captain himself.
Contemplating the ruins of what was apparently a cathedral, Luke muses:
"They had buried their dead in its shade -- there were worn stones bearing names and dates set in the ground -- and it was said that the Christians had used it as a place of worship. That, too, was hard to believe when one thought of the Christians, a handful of wretches living mostly in the hovels by the North Gate, so warped and degraded that they accepted polymufs as members of their sect and as equals. (They would have accepted dwarfs, too, but got no chance: dwarfs had their pride.)" (Page 48)
There's so much food for though in this tiny passage. The fact that worn tombstones have survived a disaster that left the cities in ruins. The radical notion that Christianity could fall into disarray, but also the hint that Christians retain a sense of acceptance, willing to take in those that others reject. The polymufs are the lepers of their time. Christopher resists the temptation to give Luke sensibilities advanced beyond those of his peers. Though the reader may question the treatment of the polymufs, Luke does not. I respect this choice, and I think that it's typical of Christopher's respect for his readers.
As for the story itself, there are battles and betrayals, loyalties and losses, and surprises. Friendship and family play major themes. It's a bit bloodthirsty, with more than one head ending up on a pike. However, Luke is slightly removed from the violence, and nothing is described in graphic detail - I think that it's fine for younger kids. Certainly it's no worse than Harry Potter in that sense, though Christopher leaves a lot more between the lines, and open for the reader's interpretation.
All in all, I don't think that this book is for everyone (not to mention the fact that it's out of print, and may be hard to find). But for fans of stories about Dystopian, future societies, with buried artifacts from our own, this is a compelling read. It's also likely to please kids who like books about sword battles and quests. Like Christopher's other books, it will make kids think. As I mentioned, this one is the first of a trilogy, and the ending is particular intriguing. The sequels, which I will be checking out of the library soon, are Beyond the Burning Lands (1971) and The Sword of the Spirits (1972).
Publication Date: 1970
Source of Book: Santa Clara City Library
Other Blog Reviews: Bookian Review Library. Sam Riddleburger did a John Christopher week in November, and discussed the Sword of the Spirits series in this post. His comments, combined with my own fond memories of Christopher's Tripods series, are what inspired me to read this book.
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.