Some torc of gold and plunder

5th July 1996 at 01:00
The Torc and the Ring, By Margaret Joy, Faber Pounds 9.99. Black Horses for the King, By Anne McCaffrey, Doubleday Pounds 9.99. The Roof of Voyaging, By Garry Kilworth, Little Brown Pounds 16.99

Riders stride out and skirts blow about voluminously, as Joanna Porter mines historical novels for nuggets to interest teenagers.

Margaret Joy's The Torc and the Ring is reminiscent of Penelope Lively in her earlier incarnation as first-rate children's writer. Like Lively, Joy attempts to slice through lives and times, encompassing diverse centuries in so doing. Her sympathies lie with the eternal imponderables - what has been lost (apparently) and what may be salvaged (perhaps). One might possess superb powers of recall, as in the case of central character William's nonagenarian grandad, and, in addition, a kind of genetic memory bank, preoccupations with which are itemised throughout.

We begin with William's 10th birthday celebrations, and then back-track some 160 years to connect William with Billy, a familial predecessor who, on his 10th birthday, is all set to unearth the torc or ancient golden cape of the title. William and Billy have much in common (without knowing it) and both sense a blood-brother bond tugging across the centuries (without altogether realising it). Likewise, Billy's lovely sister Sophie can never know that she has inherited her fair complexion from the aptly named Whitehands, a Welsh ancestress of some 3,000 years previously. Whitehands is the mourning widow of Pendefig, the restless ghost and original owner of the torc who, though appropriately buried with his ancestors, cannot resist occasional forays into the worlds of those destined to follow thereafter. Plus ca change, or rather, po mwyaf fo'r newid. In all, Joy spins an accessible yet thought-provoking torc and tale and in so doing displays a mastery of the Anglo-Welsh idiom - a welcome departure from the boyo bachs and look-yous ofyesteryear.

Anne McCaffrey takes an age to get to the Black Horses of her title but sustained reading suggests that this is part of her faithful recreation of early medieval pace, or more appropriately, necessary lack of it.

We travel to far-off horse-markets with boy-linguist Galwyn acting as interpreter for his adored Lord Artos. This verray parfit gentil knight determines that he will amass intimidating black stallions fit to drive invading Saxons from Britain and fortunately his protege Galwyn is as adept at horse-tending as at translating, swiftly absorbing the niceties of sophisticated horsemanship.

McCaffrey is able to offer a most convincing picture of life in the slow,hard rut, but whatever the hardships, who wouldn't risk all for the honour of being Galwyn, victoriously riding his Lord's horse Calyx to Camelot? Not, however, to an eventual meeting with Arthur and Guinevere, an assumed narrative high-point that we are simply denied. This is surely an anticipated component that some young readers will find it impossible to do without, unless, of course, the idea of a 17-hand black Libyan stallion is adequate compensation.

The Roof of Voyaging, first volume of an intended epic trilogy, begins in the world of tried and true Boys' Own adventure (lone warrior astride adversarial octopus) before swiftly passing into the inventive realms of boys' own pubescent fantasy (just about everybody astride just about anything). There are enough skirts blown revealingly around waists in this book to suggest that Kilworth has been lastingly affected by that timeless image of Marilyn Monroe astride (again!) an air-vent. Moreover, voluminous skirts are worn by everyone here, be they conventionally malefemale or members of Kilworth's curious sub-species male-female, and if anything at all is worn beneath, odds-on it's a heavily soiled loincloth to be impulsively removed and brandished before an enemy.

Telling the story of a young warrior king's flight from the wrath of an older, meaner, bisexual brother, Kilworth whizzes the reader around "jewel-green" Oceanic islands where extraordinary kites are stitched from lurid, tattooed human skin, where implausibly nice-guy, new-man warriors feast on the testicles of the freshly slaughtered, where rapacious women in their hundreds sexually exhaust their foe to the point of expiration.

Should you be dismayed by offspring or students who have forsaken books for videos and computers, you might find that this is the stuff to lure them back to the written word. Conversely, a dose of the seductive boy-girl might make you better disposed towards the Game Boy after all.

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