(2021) Theo Clare, Century, £12.99, hrdbk, 598pp, ISBN 978-1-529-13585-5
The Book of Sand by Theo Clare is a big book. I don’t mean just physically – it’s a doorstop – here I mean both in scope and ambition. It starts off with dual, confusing narratives and then twists and turns into an adventure story with a driving narrative and complex, engaging characters with tension ratchetting up and the stakes rising page by page.
Theo Clare was also crime writer Mo Hayder, and she was very good at that sort of thing. Her crime-writer’s instinct for creating mystery and suspense is evident here. This book was planned as the first part of a series, and as far as I know, there’s a sequel coming out next year. But, unfortunately, that might be it (I hope not) because Theo Clare’s no longer with us, sadly (she died of motor neurone disease in 2021). But this book, published posthumously, is a very high note to end on.
The first plot thread centres on Spider, a young adult who grew up in the streets of Paris, scratching a living, and who is now part of a new family of people living in a desert competing with other families to find a mysterious way out – or die, either from thirst or at the hands of the night-stalking Djinni. There are familiar cities all around but they’re closer than they should be, and deserted. Spider and his family are in an encircled space - the Cirque – full of traps and blind alleys and they have twelve cycles of what is evidently a game to escape before they’re replaced by another family. As the book starts they’ve gone ten cycles without success – in each round another family has found the exit – the Sarkpoint – so time is running out.
The second plot thread follows McKenzie Strathie. Unlike the other plotline, which is very definitely not set on our Earth, McKenzie goes to High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she’s a science nerd with a best friend and unwanted attention from the school bully. But McKenzie dreams of deserts and sees a lizard that doesn’t exist and before long she’s hooked up with Newt, who sees the imaginary lizard too, and heading for Phoenix.
The book builds its mystery well and early. It’s easy, in hindsight, to slot the two narratives together, but for the first few chapters we’re left with a confusing set of scenarios and no clear road map. There are explanations and connections down the track, but not too early and not too much, so you’re thoroughly drawn into this narrative and its strange characters. The contrasting worlds should be jarring, but they’re not – McKenzie’s high school YA (young adult) soon morphs into something more interesting and Spider’s world may be fantasy but it’s rooted in Earth references and histories. And in both plotlines, all paths lead to Phoenix.
I guarantee you’ll want more by the end of this remarkable novel.
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