Book: The Eyes of a King
Author: Catherine Banner
Age Range: 12 and up
"I received a review copy from the publisher a couple of weeks ago and stayed up way too late last night finishing the book. And all I have to say is “WOW WOW WOW.” I don’t remember feeling this excited about a book and such anticipation for the next in the series since, well, Harry Potter."
Fortunately, Random House had already sent me a copy, and I was able to read The Eyes of a King this week. I have heard quite a bit about how remarkable this book is because the author was 14 when she started writing it (and is 19 now). Personally, I don't think that the author's age should be much of a factor when reviewing a book, unless the reviewer happens to be the author's parent or doting aunt or uncle. Catherine Banner has also been hailed as the next J. K. Rowling, and I'm afraid that I can't agree with that assessment (Jill doesn't either, though she's quite positive about Banner's writing). Still, I did enjoy the book on its own merits.
Review: Catherine Banner's The Eyes of a King is a young adult fantasy, told via stories within stories. The primary narrator, Leo North, is in the present reading a story that he wrote describing events that took place five years previously, when he was fifteen. Within that story, Leo includes another story, one related to him through dreams and a book in which writing appears magically. Leo's own story takes place in the country of Malonia, in a fictional universe parallel to our own. Malonia resembles an England of the past, before electronics or widespread indoor plumbing, a land of castles and kings, and grinding poverty for ordinary people. In Leo's world, some people (including Leo himself) have powers, but these powers are based more on willpower than on magic - one can will the ropes binding ones wrists to fall off, given sufficient moral fiber. Powers aside, Leo's Malonia is a grim place, the country under the grip of a power-hungry king, where boys are educated at military schools, and girls aren't educated at all. Leo lives with his grandmother and younger brother, Stirling, his parents having had to flee the country years earlier.
The story Leo is told takes place primarily in what is, to Leo, the fictional country of England. England is a mythic land, to which people from Malonia are sometimes exiled, or so the stories go. Several parallel narratives are at play in the internal story, and sorting them out is a bit tricky at first. But things do come together, and after a slightly slow start, the book is quite compelling. I stayed up late into the night to finish it.
There is a lot to like about The Eyes of a King. The story within story format is engrossing, and Banner handles the transitions deftly. The twist by which England is the fantasy realm and Malonia the "real world" is entertaining. Reading the book, I actually felt like England, with its lorries and horseless carriages and hospitals, was kind of exotic. I also enjoyed the atmosphere of the book, dark and brooding, yet with flashes of humor. I found Banner's portrayal of Leo's emotions authentic and moving.
I do have a couple of minor quibbles. I thought that certain aspects of the story were over-explained, as Leo and Stirling spend time talking amongst themselves, decoding the story-within-a-story. I also found the dialog a bit inconsistent in the use of contractions. For example, here is a discussion between Leo and his grandmother (she speaks first):
"Hurry. You will be late for school."
I stood up. "School?"
"Yes, it is already a quarter to eight, and you haven't got the water yet."
"Cannot you do it?"
"No, I can't carry it."
"Neither can I," I said stupidly, but I had to get it. (Page 201)
The "cannot you do it" followed by "I can't carry it" struck me as blatantly inconsistent. And it's not that the grandmother speaks more formally than Leo, or vice versa, or not that I can tell. This is a small thing, but incidents like this took me out of the story from time to time.
In other aspects, however, I quite liked Banner's writing. She seems to see the poetic within the ordinary. For example:
"It would be boring to live here," said Stirling. "It's so quiet and pressing."
"You know," I told him, "sometimes boring is good." But I knew what he meant. There was a thick atmosphere of stupefying wealth and conformity and safety that hung in the streets like damp, soaking even into your brain." (Page 104)
"The snow began to fall as I walked home. It was dark, though barely five o'clock, and cold. My breath billowed white in the darkness and everything was quiet. Even the jangle and thud of the soldiers' horses seemed deadened. The flakes were so cold that they almost burned where they touched my face, and they lodged on my clothes and stuck fast. I tried to brush them away and pulled my coat up tighter around my neck." (Page 2)
This latter passage, from the start of the book, made want to settle in and immerse myself in the book.
All in all, The Eyes of a King is an impressive debut - not perfect, but engrossing nonetheless. Although this is the first book in a trilogy, the story wraps up in a good place, and the book can definitely stand on its own. I think that teens and adults will enjoy the light touch by which the fantasy elements are portrayed, and that readers will look forward to the next two installments.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.