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The Sword of the Spirits: John Christopher

Book: The Sword of the Spirits
Author: John Christopher (pseudonym of author Sam Youd)
Pages: 212
Age Range: 9-12

The Sword of the Spirits concludes John Christopher's trilogy of the same name. This installment begins with Luke Perry as Prince of Winchester, and soon, Prince of three cities. Luke is on his way to his prophesied fate - Prince of Princes, ruler of the seven cities, and the person who will bring progress to his people. He still maintains his moral compass at this point, despite his power. He names Hans the Dwarf a warrior, in recognition of Hans' loyalty on the trip beyond the burning lands. Hans' fidelity remains strong in return. He is downright Biblical in his discipleship to Luke, and Luke appreciates him. For example:

"I thought of it. To have followed me to Sanctuary would have been a great enough thing. I remembered my own fear when I first saw the stones, enormous in the empty hillside, and that had been on a fair day, with Ezzard the Seer guiding me. To have ridden up into the dread circle through a snowstorm, leading my horse with me unconscious or even dead on it's back ... I had been right to make him warrior. I did not think there was another in my army who could have done it." (Page 98)

Luke maintains his by now trademark mixture of clear-eyed strategic vision and personal blindness, unaware of a childhood acquaintance's more than friendly affection for him. His is also unaware of the growing affection between his friend Edmund and his own fiancee, Princess Blodwen. This blindness, combined with Luke's pride, costs him nearly everything.

This is a difficult book. Luke's anger and feelings of betrayal cause him to do terrible things. It's hard for the reader to remain loyal to Luke, despite understanding where he's coming from, as he behaves in an increasingly bitter manner. He maintains some of his loyalties, and forms a powerful alliance, but other relationships are lost to him.

I don't know how to talk about this book without talking, in general terms, about the ending. If you are someone who doesn't want to know anything about a book's ending, whether it's happy or sad, you should stop reading here. I'll go into as little detail as possible.

As a reader of many books, I kept expecting things to turn around. I kept waiting for Luke to do the right thing, and live happily ever after. But alas - happily after was not to be. There is resolution at the end, even a measure of success and progress. But happy? No. Luke, with whom we've traveled through various adventures, does not end up happy. I suppose he's like Frodo, a bit, too damaged by what he's endured (and put others through, in Luke's case) to ever be truly happy again. This, I think, is why this series remains out of print in the US. We're not very receptive to unhappy endings and hollow victories.

Don't get me wrong. I think this series, and this conclusion, are brilliant. Bravery and loyalty are celebrated. Complex moral questions are addressed. Readers are encouraged to think for themselves, and draw conclusions beyond those reached by the narrator himself. But the traditional happy ending usually found in middle grade children's books is not to be had.

The Sword of the Spirits series is not for everyone. The violence is sometimes graphic (the "twitching" legs of a hanging victim, for instance), and the vocabulary and story construction somewhat challenging for middle grade readers. But, for readers who can handle such things, readers ready to think about complex moral issues and intrigued by the notion of a post-apocalyptic future, this series is not to be missed. I am glad that I read it, and recommend it highly to fans of dystopian science fiction tales.

Publisher: Macmillan
Publication Date: 1972
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.