Flights of fancy

28th May 2004 at 01:00
The Cup of the World

By John Dickinson

Useful Idiots

By Jan Mark

David Fickling Books pound;12.99 each

Here are two meaty reads for young people who like books they can lose themselves in. The Cup of the World is a fantasy in the traditional mould with knights, castles, magic and warfare brought vividly to life.

Fifteen-year-old Phaedra, only child of the Lord of Trant, keeps silent about the man who appears in her dreams bearing a stone cup. Gradually, as Phaedra comes under his spell, the shadowy stranger reveals himself as Ulfin, enemy lord of Tarceny. When Phaedra elopes with Ulfin, the kingdom is plunged into war and she has to choose whether to support her husband in his bid for the kingdom or betray him and end the war.

Phaedra's fears and uncertainties as she struggles to gauge whom she can trust are well handled, though her decision not to reveal her long seduction by Ulfin because her regret at having married him should not be "dressed in excuses; only the thin cloak of filth that she had borne" reads uncomfortably like a child victim taking the blame for her abuser's actions.

Fantasy fans enjoy lots of detail and Dickinson's book doesn't disappoint; his invented world is well-realised and its central conceit, the land of the Cup of the World which confers extraordinary powers on those who enter it, is intriguing. The opening is arresting and the action gallops ahead in the final third of the book although the dreamlike, central section, while ideal for describing Phaedra's hypnotic dependency on Ulfin, slows the pace and distances the action.

Like The Cup of the World, Jan Mark's novel is concerned with truth and deception, with political expediency and moral dilemma. Useful Idiots is a thriller that grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go until the end.

Merrick Korda is part of an archaeological team which excavates "Parizo Man", a skeleton accidentally unearthed on an aboriginal reserve. The bones are political dynamite. To whom do they belong, the archaeologists or the aboriginals?

Merrick, himself part aboriginal, cannot decide which side to support until he discovers long-suppressed evidence of the systematic abuse of these intensely private people. The nature of the abuse is so bizarre and so cruel that it is dismissed as folk myth by Merrick's superiors. He determines to bring the truth into the open even though it means he must suffer what is, to him, unimaginable pain.

Useful Idiots is set in the future, in 2255, when global warming has reduced Britain to the Rhine Delta Islands. There are compensations; everyone lives long, pain-free lives; everyone is beautiful, intelligent and brown-skinned, except for the aboriginals, white isolationists living on their reserve in the "fens". The discovery of Parizo Man upsets the status quo and Merrick becomes a useful idiot whose moral outrage is manipulated by the vested interests around him. This wonderfully written story of human frailty with its subtle Swiftian echoes, lightly incorporates sources as varied as Bacon's Essays and traditional rhyme while poking sharp fun at current issues such as the shibboleth of politically correct language and our increasing dependence on technology for information storage. And there are passages and images of real beauty - drifting candles floating along the canals in the night fens or a tracery of frozen branches "sequinned with stars". Useful Idiots is a stunning book, a rare combination of a nail-bitingly good read which is perfectly written and raises questions that linger in your mind long after you've read it. Unforgettable.

Gill Vickery is a library assistant at Rugby School

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