In The Book of Names, by D. Barkley Briggs, two brothers, Hadyn and Ewan Barlow, stumble upon a portal to another world. The land of Karac Tor is in grave danger, and they are destined to play a role in its saving. Identity is everything in Karac Tor. The Book of Names contains the names and deeds of everyone born there. Evil forces want to erase those identities and plunge the land into a nightmare of despair and meaninglessness.
Hadyn and Ewan are reluctant to accept the task thrust upon them, but pressing forward is the only way to get home. Along the way, they make noble friends and incur the wrath of dire enemies. They experience hardship and mortal danger. They learn about respect, endurance, courage, loyalty, and love. They begin to come to terms with a great loss that shadows their lives. They also discover they have inner resources they never expected.
Briggs spins a good yarn. His characters are engaging and likable, and I found myself quickly drawn into the adventure. I like the way he brings Hadyn and Ewan to life, from their sparring relationship to their distinctive strengths and weaknesses.
Briggs’ descriptive language is vivid and multi-sensory. For example, he paints a memorable picture of Redthorn Forest, which has been slowly twisted and corrupted into a deathtrap:
The trees of Redthorn were not merely tall, they were rebellious and angry, reeking of loamy, molded earth, and oozing sap like sticky gray pus. Huge roots curled along the top of the soil…
…There was little sky to see above the clutching branches. Little warmth to feel from the hidden, setting sun. The trees looked like some force had exploded from within, spined and angry, vomiting blood.
There are definitely echoes of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis in this story–a hidden passage to another world, a crazy-quilt of mythologies, a seemingly-absent creator acting powerfully behind the scenes, color-coded mages, an evil witch, a surly gnome, a haunted forest, a weak, petulant regent with a slimy advisor, children from our world with royal destinies, and enigmatic prophecies that could foretell either salvation or apocalypse. The familiarity of these elements doesn’t detract from the quality of Briggs’ work, in my opinion. This story stands quite well on its own merits.
Now for a couple of minor negatives (hey, it’s a review, not a commercial):
I get a little uncomfortable when I encounter more than a couple of pop-culture references in a story. Granted, kids today are marinated in marketing, and you’d expect a few brand names to pop into their thoughts and conversations, but I think a story like this aspires to be timeless. Dialogue peppered with Wiis and NyQuil and Whoppers could leave readers a few years down the road as perplexed as the folk of Karac Tor by Hadyn and Ewan’s odd turns of phrase.
This is a boys’ story, in that we perceive this world primarily through their lens, which might lessen its appeal to teen girls (it’ll be a couple of weeks before I can get my teenage daughter’s opinion). The few women of Karac Tor we encounter are inscrutable, mysterious forces of nature, their hair wafting gently in an intangible breeze much of the time. The Barlows do have a strong and capable female companion on their journey, Asandra, an adept from the Black Abbey, but she remains an enigma until near the end of the story. The one moment she lights up, when she begins to tell the tale of Redthorn Forest, the focus shifts abruptly away from her. Even the female villain is upstaged by the true force of malignity pulling the strings.
Finally, the death of a supporting character near the end of the book seems a little gratuitous to me, and makes a very strong force for good appear incongruously weak and unprepared in the face of evil. I know, bad guys don’t fight fair, but I liked this character and wished he could have at least put up a decent struggle.
The adventures of Hadyn, Ewan, and their younger twin siblings have obviously just begun. The real villain has been revealed, and a climactic battle looms on the horizon. There’s a connection to Arthurian legend in the history of Karac Tor that’s poised to take center stage in the next installment, tantalizingly previewed in a sneak peek at the end of my copy.
This is a fine story, and I enjoyed it very much. My copy was a NavPress paperback with attractive wrap-around cover art and a cool map of Karac Tor inside that helped me keep my bearings. Buy The Book of Names for a teen in your life, then bum it off them and read it yourself. Better yet, buy your own copy.
For more commentary on The Book of Names, please visit these other fine stops on the CSFF Blog Tour:
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D. G. D. Davidson
Todd Michael Greene
Rebecca LuElla Miller
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Alice M. Roelke
Rachel Starr Thomson
>>This review is based upon a copy of the book provided to me free of charge by the publisher, a courtesy I appreciate, but which does not guarantee my recommendation. I strive to evaluate every book I review purely on its intrinsic merits.<<