01/04/2009. Contributed by RJ Barker
pub: Gollancz. 819 page enlarged paperback. Price: £12.99 (UK only). ISBN: 0-575-07620-8. pub: Gollancz. 821 page enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK), $10.99 (CAN). ISBN: 0-575-07812-X.
check out website: www.orionbooks.co.uk and www.jamesbarclay.com
Estorea is a land without magic ruled by the Conquord under Herine Del Aglios and under her, the army and the organised religion. The people are well fed and happy until the the Conquord make a bid to take over the lands of the Tsard, roughly analogous to the Mongols.
This move stretches the Conquord to its breaking limit, both militarily and politically, and after initial success, their fortunes turn and the Tsard counter-strike, putting the entire Empire under threat. The Conquord finds itself fighting battles on two fronts and in danger of falling.
While this play of armies comes to a head, a more personal battle is being fought that promises to bring the Conquord to its knees. A heretical off-shoot of the main religion has been breeding children with magical powers, the Ascendant. Although their motives are good, the existence of these children is as much a threat to the running of the Empire as the encroaching Tsard. It gradually becomes clear that the only way to beat the Tsard is to harness the power of these children, yet this is also something that ultimately, may destroy everyone. Within the close knit group of Ascendants, something very dark is growing and being fed by the hate of those who fear the Ascendant.
With 'The Newborn', James Barclay has taken a very brave opening gambit. He places you in and asks you to identify with 'The Conquord', who are essentially the Roman Empire at their rapacious, land-grabbing peak. Attach to that their ambitions, largely to push out their own monotheistic beliefs and Barclay must have known he runs the risk of alienating his audience. It's a distinct break from the more black and white morals of his 'Raven' books. Even by the hundredth page, it's still difficult to tell which of the groups involved in 'The Newborn' you should side with. On a smaller, personal scale, Barclay has shown cracks and sown seeds of doubt with certain characters but the larger scale is all grays.
Even the people bringing up the 'Ascendant' children around whom the plot revolves are revealed as ruthless and utterly committed to their purposes. Fatally committed if you just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The 'outside force' of the Tsard, show themselves to be brutal in war but, as they've been invaded by the Conquord, it's understandable.
It should be pointed out that this book is a million miles from the easy to dip into instant action of Barclay's 'Raven' books. Readers expecting the same sort of thing may be disappointed. There's very little action in the first two hundred pages of 'Cry Of The Newborn, instead Barclay builds up the edifices of the Conquord, the army, the politics and the religion. Then he artfully traces all the little cracks and faults that are ready to bring them down. This is a book that takes its time and builds up the pressure in increments so you hardly realise just how tense it is until the moment the pressure bursts and then everything changes. The fledgling Ascendant are ripped from their beloved home and cast into a world in tumult. Lines are drawn. Sides are chosen.
From this point, the focus shifts and the story pulls in around the Ascendants as they try and find safety and grow into their astounding powers. Barclay's characters are realistic and at times the book almost feels like your reading a piece of history rather than fiction. There's a lot more action in the second part and the finale is more than enough to make it up to anyone who may have found the beginning too slow. Barclay has been compared to David Gemmel in the past but for my money this is better. Gemmell's books are black and white and his characters sometimes rather two-dimensional, Barclay's world is vibrant and his people real.
This is a wonderful book and well worth spending your money on.
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Stephen Hunt's novels - USA