If one has to accept the fact that almost all fantasy books are now the beginning of a series (and we’re just about to that point), then at least Amanda Hemingway’s The Greenstone Grail is a compelling enough beginning to leave the reader wanting more while still resolving at least this portion of the story. Grail opens nicely with a bit of suspense and mystery as Annie Ward, carrying her infant son, is chased/herded, down a dark unfamiliar road by things dark and barely seen. She stumbles across a haven in the form of the small home of Bartleby Goodman, whose sight clearly has some power. From there we jump to when Nathan is thirteen years old and about to embark on the adventures of the trilogy.
Half the story involves a local legend regarding the Greenstone Grail, a family legacy lost centuries ago that seemingly has returned and is about to be auctioned off. The resurfacing of the cup leads to a legal battle, some strange mystical events, an old, usually harmless witch (“grat-grandmother” to Nathan’s best friend) biting off more than she could chew, and eventually a murder or two. The other half of the story involves Nathan’s emerging and improving ability to dream himself into a strange dying world where magic exists and whose inhabitants (steadily decreasing) are becoming more desperate to find someplace to move where the encroaching “virus” that has killed off most of their universe won’t find them.
It doesn’t take the most astute reader to figure out that eventually the two stories will have something to do with one another. Meanwhile, toss in a vengeful waterspirit, a mysterious couple who just moved into the small town, Nathan’s best friend Hazel who is both repelled and compelled by her own potential Gift for magic, a dog who is more than a dog, an old-time bumblingly benign inspector, an otherworldly princess, and a host of other items and you have a book whose numerous parts mesh together wonderfully well. The plot is both complex and nicely compelling. The coming-of-age portion of the story is handled subtly and with humor. The characters could do with a bit more edge or vividness, with the exception of Annie who comes across strongly. If Nathan seems a bit too good or too wise/eloquent for the typical 13-yr-old, the author gives us a built-in reason for this.
All in all, The Greenstone Grail stands out as one of the best of the many, many offering in young adult fantasy — better written, better plotted than most. It doesn’t quite achieve the quality of the Bartimeus trilogy by Stroud or the Gregor series, and falls somewhere in between the two with regard to target age (though can be enjoyed by older teens/adults), but it is a welcome addition. Highly recommended.
Sangreal — (2004-2006) Young adult. A modernized retelling of the King Arthur legends. Publisher: A desperate mother spirits away her infant son, seemingly drawn (chased, perhaps?) to the small English village of Thornyhill. She ends up on the doorstep of old Bartlemy, a curious man who has lived on the forested land for as long as anyone can remember — and who comes to believe that the child is destined for great things… While growing up under Bartlemy’s protective eye, Nathan Ward senses something else watching him, a shift of shadows in the surrounding Darkwood. Then pieces of his dreams begin to come to life. A man he saved from the ocean washes ashore on the television news. A greenish stone cup set with jewels that has haunted his visions sounds eerily like one lost by the Thorn family centuries ago — a cup that has recently made its way back into the hands of the village’s last living ancestor. Yet when Nathan learns the chalice may have come from another world, a land with bloodstained moons and a toxic sun, he knows he is destined to play a part in something beyond his most vivid imagination. But why is the cup here, and what could it possibly want with a teenage boy and a sleepy town of villagers full of tall tales? With the help of his best friend, Hazel, Nathan must figure out why he’s been chosen — and for what purpose. Even if it means traveling deeper each night into dreams, into lands, into legends that both terrify and mesmerize him.