A couple of months ago, this book arrived in the post. That was something of a surprise, as I had not ordered it, had in fact never heard of it, but as it is labelled "Advance Reader's Copy: Not for Resale" I assume that the publisher's marketing people had spotted this blog and sent it on the off-chance of a favourable review. I must stress that I do not encourage this and usually decline any such offers (the British Library's Classic SF reprints being a worthy exception). So I put it to one side and forgot about it, until I decided to trawl though my unread pile for something different, and found this one. It had the immediate attraction of being very short by modern standards (less than 200 pages) so at least it wouldn't waste much of my time.
On the face of it, the plot sounds unpromising. It is set in 1986 and starts with the narrator, a 15 year old boy called Nick Hayes, receiving the news that he has leukaemia, with about a 50% chance of surviving the next five years. His illness forms the backdrop to the tale, with unsparing details of the chemotherapy and its effect on him, while he is trying to live a normal life (which outside school largely consists of playing Dungeons and Dragons with a small group of friends). The author's depiction of adolescent life is good enough to make me wince in recognition every now and then (although I have to admit that Nick is a more admirable person that I recollect being at that age). He meets a girl who seems to like him, although as he attends a boys' school he hasn't a clue what to do about her (been there, done that!). He also falls foul of some nasty drug pushers and has other worries about a mysterious man who seems to be taking a close interest in him – a man who becomes the key to the rest of the tale, the focus of the SF element of the story, and the reason why the very law-abiding group of friends find themselves involved in breaking and entering while trying to avoid a homicidal nutcase. The friends discover the hard way that, just as in D&D, there are some real-life situations which cannot be escaped without a sacrifice.
The plot might not sound compelling, but I really enjoyed the writing. There are many authors whose writing and/or story-telling ability (not at all the same thing) impress me, but only very occasionally do I find an author who writes in a way which I would love to be able to emulate. Mark Lawrence has just joined that select group, and this story dragged me in, pinned me down and wouldn't let go until I had finished.
The writing style has the kind of dry, dark humour that I enjoy. A couple of examples, the first on chemotherapy:
They used to poison you if you got syphilis. I have my mother to thank for this little nugget of information. There aren't many boys of fifteen who can say that. Not so long before my blood turned sour, but a sufficient number of decades to take you back before World War II and the use of penicillin, the only effective treatment for syphilis was to dose the victim with arsenic. The logic being that although arsenic is a deadly poison it is more deadly to the bacteria that cause the disease and, with careful judgement, the doctor can kill one of you without killing the other. Chemotherapy is much the same. The chemicals used may not be such well-known favourites of celebrated poisoners, but the idea remained unchanged. The aim was to make my blood into a soup toxic enough to kill the cancer cells while allowing the rest of me to struggle on.
And the second, somewhat lighter, quote concerns the best way of buying alcoholic drinks when you are obviously too young:
The place for a teenager to buy beer was the supermarket. But you had to pad your basket out sufficiently to prove you were there on parents' orders. For best results, take a shopping list on which the beers are written, and sandwich them between a bag of frozen peas and some fish fingers. The true artist invests in some female sanitary products, too.
I see that the author has previously written three trilogies: The Broken Empire, Red Queen's War, and Book of the Ancestor. I will definitely be investigating these.