A lot of children's fantasy is criminally boring. Heroes and heroines wander around in the wilderness, talk, and maybe run away from the bad guy for a few pages. As if this wasn't bad enough, the books are WAAAAAY too long, filled with needless details and lots of fake history about the imagined world that's really just a copy of Tolkien's Middle Earth.
Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain are guilty of none of these crimes. They're well-written, fast-paced, action-packed, not derivative, and funny. Alexander drew on Welsh mythology (especiallyThe Mabinogian) to develop both the background and the stories of the kingdom of Prydain, lending a richness to these books that even good fantasy novels often lack.
As the final installment of the series, The High King is the culmination of the many plotlines throughout the books, including the main story of the fight against Arawn Death-Lord whose nefarious plan is to take over all Prydain with his army of undead Cauldron-Born warriors.
There isn't much exposition as a result. While Alexander himself says you can read the book on its own, The High King begins where Taran Wanderer leaves off and assumes readers will already be familiar with a whole host of characters and events; if you've never been to Prydain before you'll likely have a hard time keeping up.
Because this book is the climax and denouement of the series, and because it's the good old fashioned Good vs. Evil showdown, the plot is simple: Arawn must be destroyed, and Taran and Gwydion raise an army to fight him. There's a lot of fighting, which every good fantasy needs. There's also magic, dangerous journeys, enchanted weapons, and self-sacrificial love.
Taran emerges from the book as far more self-possessed, far less fearful, and far more mature than in the previous novels. If this is your first encounter with him, you might think he's a bit cliched for a fantasy hero, but this is only if you haven't followed him from his humble origins as Caer Dallben's Assistant Pig-Keeper.
If you have, you'll be genuinely surprised by some of what goes on. Characters for whom readers gave up hope a long time ago actually pull through and accomplish something good, and other characters who were thought to be better show their true (and sometimes treacherous) colors.
Mysteries are solved, happy endings dispensed, and more than one death mourned. There's a lot of death in this one, much more than in previous volumes, probably because there are so many battles. But it isn't Game of Thrones: Alexander spares the main characters for the most part, and those he doesn't aren't probably going to be anyone's favorites.
Some readers will no doubt find many parallels between The High King and The Lord of the Rings. This isn't because Alexander is a plagiarist. Far from it: his series is extremely unique and imaginative. Rather, the parallels arise from the fact that both Tolkien and Alexander took their mythology from the same sources, namely British and Norse mythology and folklore.
Parents will appreciate the emphasis on honor, chastity, and bravery. Children will appreciate the humor, the action, and the fact that there aren't long periods in which nothing happens. Fans of great literature will appreciate the fact that Alexander writes well and has mastered the art of fantasy dialogue: just archaic enough to be different, but not stilted or cheesy.
There are a lot of fantasy novels out there. Most of them are so bad no one reads them; a lot are still pretty bad but are popular for some reason; and then there's the lucky few that are actually good. The High King is definitely in the latter category, as are the other four books in the series. If you're going to read this one, you might as well read the others as well.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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