SanClare Black (The Prince of Sorrows) by Jenna Waterford
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Print Length: 362 pages
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Perhaps the greatest novelist of all time is Charles Dickens. I read Dickens extensively as a boy and recently have come back to him as I realized how archetypal his work is and how much fantasy writers owe him. As a recent example, the last episode of season "five" of the reconstituted Dr. Who was a retelling of A Christmas Carol. This makes perfect sense, as Dickens is the father of all time travel stories.
SanClare Black descends from another great novel of Dickens, Oliver Twist, with Mark Twain sharing progenitor rights via The Prince and the Pauper. Twist was the first major novel featuring a child as the chief protagonist and blends Gothic horror with a fairy tale meme, all of it overlaid with strong homoerotic elements in the relationship between Fagin and the band of pick pockets he both cares for and manipulates. The arc of the novel takes Oliver from poverty and despair to relative comfort and salvation, then plunges him back to the depths. At the end of the story, as befits a fairy tale, Oliver is finally restored to the safety and comfort of his adoptive family while those who have abused and kidnapped him receive their just punishment.
SanClare Black follows the basic template created by Dickens in Oliver Twist, but this is the 21st century and the novel is able to reach into dark corners of the human condition Dickens could only hint at. You may question whether some aspects of the tale are an appropriate fit to the fantasy genre, but the characters author Waterford can create because of her narrative choices are far more complex and varied than those found in most fantasy novels.
The novel begins with a warder, Jarlyth Denara, rushing to attend the labor of the Queen of Serathon. He is a "sensitive," (a combination of telepath and empath) and already psychically linked to the baby boy about to be brought into the world, Prince Nylan. After the child is born, Jarlyth and the infant immediately head for Tanara Priory, a place where the very psychically active Prince will be educated and sheltered while he learns to toughen his mind and spirit against the constant bombardment of other people's thoughts and feelings. Up till his eighth year, our hero lives a life of comfort and privilege.
Things can't go on this way, of course, and Nylan is kidnapped by mysterious forces and eventually finds himself abandoned sans memory in the rather grotty kingdom of Camarat. At first, Nylan (now renamed "Michael") seems to have enjoyed the luck of a soft landing, but he is the "Prince of Sorrows" after all and at ten years things go to hell and our hero is thrown into the streets of Camarat with no food, money, or guidance. All the while, in a running subplot his mentor Jarlyth is searching for the child, guilt stricken by his failure to protect him.
At this point in most fantasy novels, a kindly wizard, troll, elf, rogue et al typically shows up and things move along the heroic path trod by so many other stories. SanClare Black goes down a darker, and far more realistic, path. As happens to children worldwide when they are pried out their familial cocoon, Nylan falls victim to child abuse and rape, and eventually must make a living as a boy prostitute. The prose and passages describing his victimization and degradation are not overly explicit, but they do make for some tough reading. You have been warned. (If you're the sort of person who buys the book precisely because of the aforementioned, please keep that to yourself and don't ever contact me.)
In addition to a compelling story, one of the best things about SanClare Black is the writer's smooth, professional writing. The novel is not marred by the cracked prose and clunky descriptions that afflict too many of the indie books that have been submitted to me for review. This is professional wordsmithing and I appreciated the experience. I also enjoyed watching the character of Nylan being created and realizing that his ordeals and traumas will enable the story to explore a persona who will face memories and choices not normally touched by fantasy.
One teeny tiny point. If you're a regular fantasy reader, you're familiar with those little maps many books sport that provide you with a visual guide post of their make believe world. I've always thought those maps were a bit silly, but after reading SanClare Black, I cared enough about the universe it creates to want one. A tribute to the author's imagination.
SanClare Black is a strong, fascinating first release in a projected series. I look forward to reading the next book.
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