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Rules of the Hunt

by Hugh McCracken

(BeWrite, $10.13, 232 pages, paperback; 2002.)

Five young boys on a small Scottish island are exploring a grove that has the reputation cover scanof being haunted for twenty-four hours each year; during this single noon-to-noon period, people often disappear. Sure enough, the five are suddenly timeslipped back several centuries -- to a time when the local Duke has the winsome habit of conducting an equivalent of the Wild Hunt on that one day each year. There has been puzzlement that quite often strangers in weird garb turn up during the Hunt, but none of them has ever survived it. The boys immediately encounter the Duke and his huntsmen, but are granted their lives until next year's Hunt -- although not before one of them is accidentally killed.

During the twelvemonth the four -- Pete (the narrator, an American staying with relatives on the island while his parents divorce), Davey (his cousin), Keith (a working-class lad subjected to physical abuse at home) and Mike (the natural leader) -- integrate themselves with the locals, in particular being befriended by Andrew, a cousin of the Duke's and also leader of the Old Ones, a society that offers a sort of Gandhi-like passive resistance to the Duke's rule. The four boys come to be widely regarded as warlocks, and indeed Pete starts displaying some supernatural powers -- dreaming prophetic dreams and establishing telepathic contact with the Duke, who proves to be his distant ancestor. Even so, Keith is seized and tortured on the rack; by the time he can be rescued it is evident he will never walk properly again. And ever the day of the next Hunt draws nearer, and with it the enigma of whether the boys will ever be able to get back to their own time...

Timeslip novels for young adults are not exactly thin on the ground at the moment, but Rules of the Hunt is certainly among the most interesting of them that this reviewer has encountered -- and the most readable. The action, after a slightly slow start, fairly cracks along, to the point that once or twice one wishes it would crack along a bit less enthusiastically, because a couple of plot developments go by so fast that they almost ring of perfunctoriness. The setting, fascinating in itself, is very nicely realized; it has the feel of a fantasyland while at the same time being firmly rooted in a historical reality. The characters likewise come alive, although the boy Keith takes a while to do so.

What is additionally refreshing about this novel is that it is genuinely for adolescents rather than, as is too often the case with young adult novels, being over-sanitized. The killing, early on, of the boy Colin, whom one had assumed was going to be one of the protagonists -- one of "our merry gang" -- hammers it home that this isn't going to merely the customary romp in which all dangers are survived without much damage to life or limb; and this tenor is maintained by such events as the torturing of the boy Keith. Keith's catchphrase is "No funny stuff", referring to his only semi-joking fear of homosexual advances, the implication being strong that it's not just beatings he's suffered at home from his father and elder brothers. Pete is going through that phase of adolescence when erections pop up at all sorts of unexpected moments, and his embarrassment about this is treated with charming honesty rather than the whole matter being ignored entirely. None of this is matter from which children should be shielded -- to the contrary, it contributes to their healthy development -- but most writers (and, much more importantly, most children's editors) would blench at the prospect of some bible-blinded parent in Texas taking exception and would censor reality accordingly.

This is a very nicely produced book from a new publisher; there are quite a few typos, especially in the last thirty pages or so, but otherwise it's a handsome trade paperback, with a nice cover by Alan Geldard.

All the best children's and young adult novels hold many riches for adults, and this is one of them. Rules of the Hunt had me gripped; even if one ignored its various subtexts, therefore, it deserves recommendation.

Review by John Grant.

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