The Prince in Waiting trilogy (aka Sword of the Spirits) is an epic post-apocalyptic fantasy series from John Christopher, the author of books such as The Tripods and The Death of Grass.
In a future Britain shattered by the Disaster (the true nature of which is revealed during the story), society has reverted to a medieval form, with the machines of the past rejected and reviled as the causes of the Disaster – anyone unwise enough to meddle with ‘ancient’ technology is put to death. All spiritual matters are dictated by the monastic-like Seers, whose role it is to interpret the will of the ‘Spirits’; Christians exist but as a marginal, often hated minority.
Following the Disaster, birth defects are more common, leading to strict castes in society, with ‘true men’. ‘dwarfs’, who are permitted to work as blacksmiths to forge weapons, and the lowest social group, ‘polymufs’, who are denied many freedoms and are assigned the most menial tasks and treated as slaves.
The protagonist of the books (I hesitate to say hero) is Luke, who lives in the walled city of Winchester, a powerful, militaristic realm, which regularly goes to war with neighbouring settlements. Luke becomes the Prince in Waiting, heir to the ruler of Winchester, but more than this, the Seers have planned he will be the one to unite the warring cities.
But Luke is a flawed choice – for all his undoubted bravery and fighting skills, he is ambitious, stubborn and proud, demanding complete loyalty from his subjects, especially from his closest friends. The world of this story is a treacherous one, with allies swiftly turning into enemies, and although Luke’s courage and warlike nature leads him to victories, his desire to avenge any perceived slight, any hint of disloyalty, leads him down a dark path…
Consisting of three books, The Prince in Waiting, Beyond the Burning Lands and The Sword of the Spirits, this is an epic series, which cleverly threads in mythology (there’s a witty use of the tale of Tristan and Isolde at a key moment in the story), religion and science into a post-apocalyptic world. Some of the other tribes and settlements Luke encounters on his various journeys are unsettling and sometimes plain bizarre. I found Christopher’s portrayal of a violent fractured society, with dangers around every corner, compelling and the story is taut and brisk, with new wonders, and new horrors, emerging with each chapter.
If you’re a fan of post-apocalyptic science fiction / fantasy, then this is certainly a series you would enjoy – I wouldn’t rate it quite as highly as John Christopher’s incredible Tripods Trilogy (which I have written about previously in this blog) but it is a fascinating companion piece and a worthwhile read in its own right.
If you’re interested in finding out more about John Christopher / Sam Youd, I strongly recommend visiting the Syle Press website, which is packed with information and resources about the author and his books.
Greybeard is a science fiction novel by the British author Brian Aldiss, published in 1964.
In 1981 humans and most mammals were rendered sterile by the ‘Accident’. By 2029, the youngest generation of humans are in their fifties, with no younger generations to follow. With civilisation collapsed, the remaining people eke out an existence in small, fearful communities, knowing humanity’s ultimate demise is close at hand.
Greybeard (real name Algy Timberland) and his wife Martha abandon their crumbling settlement and set-off on a boat trip down the Thames, travelling through a landscape changed by the collapse of human civilisation and the resurgence of nature. Along the way Greybeard and Martha encounter other, strange communities, where the inhabitants often fall prey to profiteering hucksters and false prophets seeking to exploit the desperate need for hope in a fallen world. Foremost among such charlatans is the gloriously named Bunny Jingadangelow, who claims to possess the secrets of youth and immortality—when Greybeard and Martha encounter Jingadangelow later in the story, he has elevated himself as a religious figure, the Master, and through a mix of charm, deception and cunning, has gathered loyal followers who treat him like a god.
As well as following Greybeard’s and Martha’s journey, flashbacks explore the effects of the self-inflicted ‘Accident’: the war, the descent into anarchy, the disease, the madness. The chapter where Greybeard and Martha encounter local tyrant Peter Croucher I found especially striking and darkly comic, as Croucher tries to enforce a brutal order after the national government in Britain disintegrates—Croucher is power-hungry, humourless and insecure, as witnessed by his fear of intellectuals and his mangled attempts to prove his own intelligence. The rise to power of such a figure in chaotic times is painfully plausible and carries a warning we should all heed.
This is a haunting and sombre book, with a memorable depiction of a slow, quiet but unstoppable human catastrophe. The world of Greybeard is richly described, with a continual and potent contrast between the vigour and fecundity of nature (as it covers over roads and buildings, reoccupying lands previously lost to humans) and the decrepitude of humanity. There is the sense that the rule of humans is but a brief interruption and that nature might in time erase all trace of our species.
Despite the bleakness, there are tiny slivers of hope, with rumours and sightings of humanoid beings—for example, the talk of elves and gnomes hiding in the forests—suggesting there might be a future for humanity, albeit one very different from what came before.
Exploring themes of aging, death, religion and power, Greybeard is a powerful and thought-provoking novel from a master of science fiction.
There’s no doubt some of the popular culture in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s was, well, different; in fact, it was often dark and unnerving, with scary television programmes, frightening films and books, and frankly terrifying Public Information Films (I had few more unnerving viewing experiences in childhood than having to watch Apaches at Primary School)—it is this creepy, unsettling sense that it is captured and discussed perfectly by Volumes One and Two of Scarred for Life.
Volume One covers a wide range of subjects: scary television, films, books, the paranormal, games and much, much more. A flavour of what’s discussed includes Doctor Who, Children of the Stones, Folk Horror, Watership Down, 2000AD and the Pan Books of Horror Stories. I could go into far more detail but it’s better to leave it to you to explore as a reader and discover the book’s treasures for yourself.
Volume Two is focused on the darker side of 1980s television, and there’s plenty of ground to cover! A couple of personal favourites covered in detail include two excellent BBC adaptations of SF books: the bold (though sadly unfinished) adaptation of John Christopher’s The Tripods and the chilling version of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (the opening credits alone frightened me as a child!). Volume Two digs deep into topics such as children’s television (how did I not see Knights of God at the time? Sounds exactly like the sort of programme I would have loved then and now!), surreal drama, the impact of Channel 4 and yes, more terrifying Public Information films! As Volume One does with the 1970s, I found that Volume Two, as well as being a fantastic exploration of 1980s popular culture, also gives a vivid sense of what life in Britain was like then, both the good and the bad.
Each volume of Scarred for Life goes deep into detail on the many subjects, but don’t think for a minute these are dry reads—the writing throughout is energetic, honest and often funny.
Both books are mighty tomes, and as well as being great reads, the suggested viewing section that accompanies many of the chapters sent me off to YouTube to watch various clips and programmes.
That writing these books was a labour of love by the authors and other contributors shines through on every page. For me, the first two volumes of Scarred for Life represent independent publishing at its very best; bold, informed and passionate. I can’t recommend both volumes of Scarred for Life enough, and look forward to the publication of volume three. If you want to get hold of Scarred for Life volumes one and two (and if possible, you certainly should), they are available from the links below:
Scarred for Life – Volume one
Scarred for Life – Volume two
It is also worth following the Scarred for Life account on twitter, both for some great content and for regular discount offers on both books.
Happy reading and happy nightmares...
“On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld board he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.”
Just from this quote – the opening words of the novel – you will see Riddley Walker is a book unlike any other.
The novel is set hundreds of years in the future, long after a nuclear holocaust, with England reduced to effectively an Iron Age level of existence. When his father dies in an accident, young Riddley Walker inherits a shamanistic role among his people, and when he uncovers an attempt to recreate the weapons that once devastated civilization, he is forced to go on the run. Twelve years’ old, though perceptive beyond his tender years, Walker narrates his adventure in the fragmented, fractured Riddleyspeak, a language as broken as the society portrayed in the story.
I found Riddleyspeak a challenge, especially in the early pages, but in time (and with the help of a glossary at the end of the book), I began to adapt to the rhythm and structure. You are forced to slow your reading, and if anything, I think the book would benefit from being read aloud.
The language reinforces the sense we are seeing Riddley’s post-apocalyptic world through his eyes, adding to the force and energy of his descriptions. Hoban’s invented language fizzes with clever word-play, and through this we see echoes of the past, and adds to the sense shared by Riddley and other characters in the story of the heights civilization once reached, and the bitterness and sense of shame that all was lost through human aggression and greedy misuse of their technological wonders. The language can, in places, be very funny, for example in the twisted Kent placenames (Do-it-over = Dover, Horny Boy = Herne Bay) and the scene where Goodparley and Riddley attempt to interpret The Legend of Saint Eustace (written as it is in modern English).
Riddley’s adventurous journey allows Hoban to build a grim portrayal of this ruined England, from the mysterious Eusa folk, the ruined cathedral in Cambry (Canterbury), the wandering packs of wild dogs and the Eusa Show, performed by the ‘Pry Mincer’ and the ‘Wes Mincer’, who on their travelling puppet shows perform allegorical propaganda stories to the , communities. It is an uncompromising vision, and as bleak and well-conceived a dystopia as I have ever encountered.
Infused with mythological, folkloric and religious symbolism, Riddley Walker is rich for endless interpretation; it is not an easy read, but it is worth the effort – Trubba not.
I would also add the edition of Riddley Walker I read had an entertaining introduction by novelist Will Self, which provided some valuable insights and context.