Rules of the Hunt
(BeWrite, $10.13, 232 pages, paperback;
Five young boys on a small Scottish island are exploring a grove that
has the reputation of
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.