One of the difficulties of being a critic is that sometimes you get a book from someone you like so much that you are afraid to read it in case you don’t like the book as much you like as the person. That happened to me for a while with Jo Hall’s latest book, The Art of Forgetting: Rider. Jo’s existing publisher had gone out of business, and she asked me if I’d be interested in publishing her new novel. I asked her to send it over, then got cowardly and busy. This was probably a good thing, however, because before long Jo sold the book to Kristell Ink, a new UK-based small press, who have probably done a much better job than I would have done with the book. I simply don’t have the time to work on an unedited manuscript.
I managed to kick myself past the cowardice by inviting Jo to appear on my radio show. That meant that I had to read the book. I’m delighted to say that, had I done so earlier, I would have been pleased to publish it. As it is, I’m pleased to be able to sell it instead.
On the face of it, the book is a fairly standard epic fantasy. It features a young orphan boy who sets out to make his way in the world, and has big adventures as a result. But Jo then sets out of subvert expectations wherever she can. To start with, while young Rhodri does remember being of noble birth (he has almost perfect memory), he doesn’t discover that he’s the long lost son of the king. Rather, the father he remembers turns out to be the most hated man in the kingdom, a cruel and ambitious fellow whose plotting plunged the country into civil war. As Rhodri ends up as a cavalry cadet in the town that his father used to rule, this makes his life quite uncomfortable.
If this wasn’t hard enough for the lad, Rhodri also has his burgeoning sexuality to worry about. Most of his fellow cadets are, of course, girl-crazy. For Rhodri life is somewhat more complicated. There is a fair range of QUILTBAG characters in the story, one of whom is bisexual, which is pretty rare even these days.
I suspect that some readers may be unhappy with Jo about the way one of the other QUILTBAG characters is treated. Personally I’m OK about it. After all, some people really are on a very low rung of the social ladder; and showing how hard life can be for them is not the same thing as saying that they deserve that treatment.
The book contains some elements of a classic school story. Rhodri is, after all, thrust into the company of a bunch of teenage boys. Joining the cavalry as a cadet is not that far removed from being sent to boarding school. So we have the class bully character, and all that entails. However, I would not describe this as a YA novel. I have read enough of them by now to understand what full-on YA is like. A large part of YA seems to involve dealing with parents, and Rhodri doesn’t have any of those. The army is not a suitable stand-in.
The book is set in the same world as Jo’s earlier trilogy, and anyone who has read those books will be pleased to see a few old friends crop up. However, you don’t need to have read the previous books to read this one. Indeed, it is probably better if you have not. The surprises will work better that way.
For an epic fantasy, there is actually very little magic in the book. There is something that may be a ghost, but in a different novel could easily be explained away. There is a monster, but that could be just a large and dangerous animal. However, one of the reasons for the lack of fantastical elements is that the book is largely set in town. As soon as Rhodri’s unit gets sent elsewhere, and has to traipse through the countryside, more magical things turn up. The book is only half of the story — Jo genuinely wrote a book so long that the publishers asked to split it in two — and I understand that the sequel will have a lot more magic in it. Indeed, she has promised me a were-leopard. That will keep me reading.
I’m not going to claim that this is the next best thing in epic fantasy, comparable to the latest George Martin and Guy Gavriel Kay. That would do Jo no favors at all. What I will say is that this is a good book that pulls the reader along at a cracking pace. I’m delighted at the risks Jo has taken with the story and characters, and wish her all the best with this book and the sequel. I very much want to find out what happens to Rhodri after the cliff that Jo dropped him off at the end of this volume. (And yes, I did mean that, I know what cliff-hanging is, and Rhodri isn’t hanging.)
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