The new notch on a timeline

8th April 2005 at 01:00
Robert Dunbar follows gripping sagas through sequel and beyond

The Aldous Lexicon Part Two: Small eternities. By Michael Lawrence. Orchard Books pound;12.99

Infernal Devices. By Philip Reeve. Scholastic Press pound;12.99

The Widow and the King. By John Dickinson. David Fickling Books Pounds 12.99

An introductory authorial note reminds us that Small Eternities is the second in a "continuous narrative" of three volumes and that confusion may arise "if these three are read in anything other than chronological order".

It is a necessary reminder for a book in which the principal concern is with time - time past, time present, time future - and its particular relevance to the protagonists' experiences of the "small eternities" of the title.

"Four interminable months" following the events of A Crack in the Line, the first title in Lawrence's trilogy (and now reissued by Orchard Books in paperback, pound;5.99). The focus remains on two teenagers, Alaric and Naia, their shared lineage, and the 19th-century English house, Withern Rise, where without ever having met they have spent their 16 years.

The young people's moves between their various realities and their gradual comprehension of the links that bind them provide the material for a novel that ambitiously avoids consideration of mere parallel worlds in favour of the more complex question as to whether pieces of history may "break off and continue for ever", each complete in itself, "like a knot in an endless length of string".

Given sufficient prominence to be a significant character in its own right, Withern Rise and its flooded grounds provide an atmospheric setting for what is essentially an exploration - often very touching - of the complexities of coincidence, memory and loss. An appreciation of all the novel's subtleties demands a close reading, but one repaid by a narrative that is always engrossing.

Widely praised as being among the most ingenious and entertaining fiction of recent years, Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines and Predator's Gold are now joined by Infernal Devices, a novel that more than lives up to the expectations created by its predecessors. Its futuristic setting does not provide a very reassuring picture of where our world may be going, but its violence, conflict and rivalries are beautifully offset by its wit and jocular mischief.

Bored by the routine of life with her parents in "a forgotten corner of the dead Continent", 16-year-old Wren Natsworthy sees the arrival of "the Lost Boys" on her local beach as an opportunity for adventure. An awareness of the history of these young men and their skill as thieves does nothing to deter her, though she is hardly to know at the outset of the precise consequences of her involvement with them. Central to these developments is the mysterious "Tin Book", which is wanted by just about every warring faction she encounters in this world of Traction Cities, Green Storm revolutionary forces and Old (and New) Tech weapons.

Reeve tantalisingly dangles this book and its possible function before the reader, echoing the recurring questions of several of his characters as to what its precise contribution to the outcome of events will be. All is revealed - or is it? - by the time of the grand finale, a suitably explosive mixture of fireworks and aerial bombardments. The setting for this dramatic set piece is a magnificently reconstructed Brighton, full of raffish crooks and bohemian pretentiousness. These are sparkling, brilliantly paced pages, an arresting conclusion to what has been a remarkable trilogy.

At more than 600 pages, John Dickinson's The Widow and the King places itself among the more ambitious and challenging of contemporary fantasies, but not just in its length. A sequel to the well received The Cup of the World (now simultaneously reissued in paperback by Corgi, pound;5.99), this is a novel of epic proportions, in which a richly multi-coloured medieval setting is the background for a narrative of vibrant characters and passionate political debate.

As we follow the inter-linked stories of the young protagonists (Sophia, daughter of the title's widow, and Ambrose, son of the dead king) we see them caught up in a world where noble aspirations concerning such abstractions as truth, wisdom and learning are tested against the most chilling imaginable embodiments of total evil. We see them also embroiled in the timeless conflict between parent and child, a theme with which many young readers will identify.

Robert Dunbar is head of English at the Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin

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