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Book Review: The Sword of Straw by Amanda Hemingway

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Amanda Hemingway’s contemporary retelling of the Grail myth gains significant strength in The Sword of Straw, the second volume in her Sangreal Trilogy. In the first book, The Greenstone Grail, the story of young Nathan Ward, a young boy who wandered other worlds in his dreams, was intriguing and yet seemed somewhat incomplete. The Sword of Straw finds Hemingway far more assured in her characterization and narrative; the story unfolds in a far more mesmerizing way.

[ADBLOCKHERE]Nathan may be only 14, but he has already accomplished the seemingly impossible: transported to an alien universe in his dreams, he managed to retrieve the ancient Grail. It is now held for safekeeping by his “uncle,” an unimposing wizard of impressive strength. Now his dreams are sending him to another world: a barren landscape ruled by an abandoned city, where the young Princess Nell strives to care for her sickly father.

It seems that in a moment of rash anger, the king drew a magical sword from its sheath – a sword that bears a terrible curse, and bears within it an ancient demon. The sword brings death, even to its wielder, and the injury the king suffered has never healed. The kingdom’s population has fled, and now only Nell and a few loyal servants have stayed by the king’s side.

Legend claims that a stranger can heal the king – a stranger who can likewise wield the sword, and defeat the evil within the blade. Few would have expected such a hero to be an adolescent teen who arrives in his pajamas – few, that is, save those who are slowly deciphering the fact that Nathan is somehow the one chosen to retrieve the ancient Sangreal relics and save an alien universe. Meanwhile, forces back on earth seek to stop him, or to steal the Sangreal items for their own purposes.

Steeped in myth and an emerging lyric grace that echoes the best of writers such as Patricia McKillip or Connie Willis, The Sword of Straw is a delightfully compelling fantasy. In Nathan there is also something of the poignant coming of age found in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King: a sense of that which is lost, and that which is gained, through age. Mixing in a dash of science fiction (its “alternate universes”), the story nonetheless manages to represent itself well as a contemporary manifestation of mythical magic.

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