Monday, 15 December 2014

At One's Beast


At One's Beast
by Rachel Barnard

This is an immersive fantasy for young adults, but with broader appeal and deeper purpose. It is a relatively quick read, what I would call a long novella or a short novel. The setting is the isolated pastoral village of Frey, which is surrounded by a wild and largely unknown forest.

The key physical feature in the story is a mysterious well in the forest, which the villagers use in an annual cleansing ceremony, as a receptacle of all their ill-will from the past year. The well no longer contains water, but exudes an accumulated dark menace; however, "No one has ever fallen into the well."

There are three main human characters: Zosimos or 'Zos' for short, and Alcina, who are children when the story begins, and Aethon, of similar age but whom we meet a little later. The events in the main body of the book take place ten years after the opening scenes, when the three have grown up. The Jackal is also an important character, whether primary or secondary depends on your reading of the book.

Barnard's writing style is good, easy to read, and a comfortable fit with the content.

Before I go on to the good, and why you really should read this book, let me deal with the negative. Perhaps intentionally, Rachel Barnard has set Frey in an extraordinary isolation. There is virtually no contact with the outside world, and when the villagers do request support from Aporia, it takes weeks to arrive. Yet the village has such things as books, which require a minimum degree of technology to produce. So I felt that there was a gap in the book's logic where the setting was concerned: it wasn't clear how the villagers were making a living, or how the village continued to survive. This may have something to do with the author's underlying aims with the story, see below. The Jackal appeared oddly enormous where the real life animal is quite small - but then, this is a fantasy, and the Jackal has a symbolic role.
There are also some minor failures in editing: an occasional typo or odd word choice. I must emphasize that these are rare, and do not detract from the reader's experience.

Now, what makes this book special, and why should you read it?

Firstly, it's a great story. There is drama, there is a mysterious beast of the forest which the villagers perceive as a destructive enemy and which they try to appease by offering an annual sacrifice. There is romance and tension. There is love, there is quick judgement and rejection, there is the eternal struggle of conflicting human emotions. The characters are endearing, particularly Zos and Alcina. There is the sway of influence between the chaotic forest and civilized village life. The story grips, the characters struggle with themselves and with one another, and with the revelation of buried truths.

Most importantly, this is not just another light fantasy. Rachel Barnard has aimed high. In At One's Beast she strives to address profound truths and ethical challenges through the model of this isolated village and its well of darkness. Where does ill will go when we have gotten over our hurt or our anger or malice? What is the impact upon the society we live in - and, how might it manifest if it were magically visible? What might one achieve if, instead, one were at one's best?