Saturday, 24 December 2011

'They're ill to tame, the border men'

I'm not, on the whole, a big fan of teenage fiction. While the children's books I loved when I was little, such as Marianne Dreams, Goodnight Mister Tom, Ballet Shoes, Islands in the Sky, The Lotus Caves and yes, even the early Harry Potters, still give me great joy and satisfaction when I re-read them today, I found that I rapidly grew out of the teenage fiction I used to enjoy when I was thirteen or fourteen. Far more than fiction for younger readers, it seemed to be aimed solely at one age group, and held little interest for anyone who didn't fall within its remit. Novels such as Melvin Burgess's Junk now simply feel shallow to me, a sketchy version of what much adult fiction does better, even though I loved it when it was first published. Teenage fiction also, notoriously, doesn't sell nearly as well as either adult fiction or that aimed at the 8-12s, despite the success of a number of crossover novels such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (which, to be honest, I thought was over-hyped and over-praised anyway!)

However... every so often, I read a novel marketed at teenage readers that is simply brilliant, far better than most of the adult fiction that I read, and has been overlooked in part because of the age category the publishers happened to slot it into. I think, possibly, that is what has happened to Susan Price's The Sterkarm Handshake and its sequel A Sterkarm Kiss. These two novels feature no lead characters under the age of about twenty, but seem to have been labelled as teenage because Price was already known as a children's writer (although her Ghost Drum books are hardly light, fluffy reading either). But I can't recommend them enough, and this is why:

- The basic plotline concerns a 21st-century company, FUP, [futuristic in the context of a pair of books written in the 1990s!] creating a time tube through to an alternative-universe 16th century Scottish borderlands in order to exploit the natural resources that still exist there, such as oil and gas, and to begin a tourism industry through which 21st-century tourists can come and gawp at the locals. However, their plans are being thwarted by the uncooperative local Sterkarms, the most notorious of 'the border men'. What is there not to love about that set-up?

- The Sterkarms are a fantastic set of characters, loveable and ruthless by turn. For example, as a predominantly left-handed family, they build the staircases in their towers to go round anti-clockwise, rather than clockwise, to make them easier for left-handed swordsmen to defend - and putting the right-handed enemy at a disadvantage.

- More seriously, as historical novels they work more convincingly than almost anything else historical I've ever read, perhaps because the intrusion of a modern perspective makes the explanation of Sterkarm customs more natural, but primarily because Susan Price never lets her extensive research interfere with the telling of the story. The reader feels as if they've really got to grips with the way daily life in a Sterkarm stronghold runs, and yet as though everything they've learnt has been completely necessary to their understanding. Price's bold attempt at guesstimating what Sterkarm English might have sounded like is also notable.

- The sixteenth-century mindset is presented as genuinely different from the modern mind - this is, in fact, a key stumbling-block for many of FUP, such as the arrogant James Windsor, who see the Sterkarms as children in fancy dress. Andrea Mitchell, working as an interpreter and observer of Sterkarm customs, is our key point-of-view character for this; despite her academic knowledge, she finds it increasingly difficult to accept the Sterkarms' casual attitude to violence - although the Sterkarms are equally appalled by modern warfare and the extinction of species. Andrea herself, large and so not conventionally beautiful in the modern world, finds her reception very different in the sixteenth century, where she is close to the healthy feminine ideal. These are often minor details, but add substantially to the verisimilitude of this invented world - and sadly, are all too rare in most historical novels.

- The complicated intrigues between the Sterkarms and FUP are truly gripping, and I think would appeal to fans of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire - a scene in the second novel bears remarkable resemblance, in fact, to an infamous sequence in A Storm of Swords. Price also utilises one of the best devices for generating a plot for a sequel I've ever read - simply go back in time and start again. Although not exactly...

The only reason not to read these two books, I think, is that they seem to form part of an incomplete trilogy, with the ending to A Sterkarm Kiss left on a rather infuriating cliffhanger. As it seems unlikely there will be a third book now, it depends on whether you're willing to deal with this or not. Personally, while the ending is unsatisfying, it didn't really lessen my enjoyment of the book. And you can always just read The Sterkarm Handshake! Suffice it to say, I think these shouldn't be missed. Just remember: never shake hands with a Sterkarm...

Has anyone else read these? I'd love to hear from you if so.


  1. Dear Laura,

    Im impressed and amazed that anyone could read as many books in 12months as you have, i love reading but, being a drone in the construction game, and without formal qualifications i find reading a biot of a slog. How do you do it? i would love to know.

    1. Hi David, sorry for the late reply, I haven't checked the comments for ages. To be honest I think the answer to your question is that I am a lazy PhD student with a lot of time on my hands. When I was working 9-5 a couple of years ago in a 'real' job the number of books I managed to read fell dramatically!

  2. Hi Laura! - I wrote the Sterkarm books - and very much appreciate your review. Thank you!
    I am working on the third Sterkarm book now - I have the rights to the first two back, and may republish all three independently.
    I'm blogging about the writing/rewriting of Sterkarm 3 here -

    And I'm part of the Authors Electric group of independently publishing writers -

    1. Just saw this comment - very exciting to hear from you! I'm thrilled to hear you're working on a third Sterkarm novel, and thanks for the link to your blog - I'll definitely be checking it out. I'm trying to get my boyfriend to read the novels at the moment - he's enjoying them, but he's a very slow reader, so hopefully he'll catch up in time to read the third :)

  3. Great review, Laura. It reminded me of what a visceral, exciting experience it was to encounter the Sterkarms for the first time!

    1. Thank you! Glad to find someone else who's read & enjoyed the books as well.