D. Barkley Briggs,
Legends of Karac Tor: The Book of Names
(NavPress, 2008)

What do you get if you mix the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis with Charles de Lint and his blending of cultures and frequent use of Celtic lore? Maybe this book by D. Barkley Briggs.

Hadyn, Ewan, Gabe and Garrett Barlow are brothers, ages 15, 13, 9 and 9. Their lives were just turned upside-down, twice. Their beloved mother died of cancer, and their now-single father relocated the family, as per the pre-cancer plan, from suburbia to a farm in Missouri. The boys, especially Hadyn, are far from thrilled.

Given the task of tearing down an ancient, enormous briar thicket at the back of the property, Hadyn tries to make the job more interesting by hacking a maze into it, with Ewan helping him. Then things get strange, as the older Barlow brothers discover a relic inside the thicket, and four large, crow-like birds fly overhead, dropping a cryptic message, copied fourfold.

Hadyn and Ewan had felt displaced by the family's relocation, but that sense of displacements pales in comparison to what they feel after the encounter in the briar thicket. The brothers end up in a land right out of legend, and meet fascinating people and creatures -- some friendly and some definitively hostile. Will they survive? Will they ever make it home? Will they continue to want to return home? Can they fulfill an ancient prophecy? Who can they trust in this new land? What happened to the other two Barlow brothers? I do not want to divulge much plot here, and spoil the reading experience for anyone, but this is a grand adventure fantasy, with many mythic components out of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Scandinavia.

The author creates very credible characters, and the kids react to stress the way kids would really react. Briggs describes the settings well, without letting the book get bogged down in details. While the premise bears some semblance to the Narnia books, much else differs. I have not yet read the C.S. Lewis series, and will therefore make no further comparisons or contrasts. However, I believe that fans of the Narnia books who hunger for more might find an answer here.

Besides the character development and setting descriptions, Briggs does a very good job at world-building. The place where Hadyn and Ewan go has a clear culture, religion and political system. Even as Greg Bear's Dinosaur Summer takes the premise that, if dinosaurs had not become extinct, evolution would have continued for their line, so this book gives us a world built upon ancient English, Celtic and Norse lore, but evolved over the centuries.

But what really stands out in this book is the almost-poetic quality of the prose and the wonderful descriptions of how the characters perceive things. Here are two samples:

Describing something commonplace (a woodstove): The fire behind the glass wildly took wing, like a caged bird thrashing about, struggling to rise in flight, to be free.

On Hadyn's grief over his mother: The knowledge of his pain was his own, earned with the hard stripes of life. It was part of how he remembered, how he honored his mother, by hurting for her. By carrying all that hurt deep inside, crammed and packed like a piece of paper folded over and over again, so tightly you could not make another fold, tucked away and spring-loaded into the lonely core of his being.

Briggs is the father of four boys, and the boys' mother passed away. As I had guessed from those basic facts given in the "about the author" page in the back of the book, as well as the story itself, the book is a tribute to his sons; that is confirmed in the website devoted to the book. This is likely part of how he can write about grief, and about teenage boys, as well as he does.

review by
Chris McCallister

31 January 2009

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