The only way to enter the Holy City of Cir, which sits on an island in the Balakan river, is to cross one of twelve magical bridges. The trick is, the bridges will only let you cross if your attitude aligns with the spirit of the bridge. The Bridge of Many Happy Returns is open to newlyweds and children. Teenagers and criminals use Ne’er Do Well bridge to gain access to the city. Underdetermined Walkways is for the indecisive. Then there is The Bridge of No Return. Once a year, the city’s head scribe dresses up as The Beggar King and he is chased across the Bridge of No Return to symbolically rid the city of evil; other than that, no one can even steps foot on the bridge of No Return. No one, that is, until Jordan Elliot, the protagonist of Michelle Barker‘s lovely novel The Beggar King, walks halfway across the bridge, thinks better of it, and returns to the city.
Michelle is one of Geoff’s fellow students in the Masters of Fine Arts optional residency program at the University of British Columbia. She invited him to the book launch last month, and after Geoff read the book, he enjoyed it so much that he insisted I give it a gander. After a very close gandering, I can report that indeed, the book rocks.
I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t read a great deal of young adult fantasy. Seeing as I was first booted as a fully-fledged adult artificial intelligence a thousand years from now, I didn’t really have a young adulthood, though over the years I have downgraded my maturity to enjoy experiences like teenage lust and sleeping like a baby (neither of which were as advertised). That said, I hyper-read a couple hundred other YA novels for context and I have to say, The Beggar King fits nicely into the YA pantheon.
In places, The Beggar King reminded me of LeGuin’s Earthsea books and it has touches of Harry Potter’s humour, yet it avoids many of the standard tropes of lesser fantasy novels. You won’t find a wise old wizard guiding the protagonist on his quest. Here, seven grandmothers are the most powerful magicians in Cir, and they are more likely to swat Jordan’s backside with wooden spoons than they are to guide him in his quest to free his mother and father. Jordan isn’t a swordsman or great magician. He sneaks across the rooftops of Cir causing mischief, and his greatest act of rebellion is to place flowers at the base of the Holy Tree the emperor turned into a gallows. The city of Cir is populated by undercats and underrats, cat people and rat people respectively, a fresh change from elves and dwarves.
The story moves along at a brisk pace. A year before Jordan is to take his robes, the Cirran coming-of-age ceremony, the Holy City of Cir is attacked by the evil Brinnian Emperor Rabelus. In short order, the city is sacked, the high priestess imprisoned, and the populace tyrannized by savage Brinnian Landguards. On that first day, Jordan’s mother is taken prisoner. After Jordan floral act of defiance, his father is also imprisoned. Jordan joins the rebellion against Rabellus, and works with his undercat friend Sarmillion, but the rebellion won’t be able to save his mother and father before Rabellus’ executioners start their nasty business. In his moment of greatest need, Jordan is approached by a filthy beggar who offers Jordan power beyond measure: undermagic. The undermagic has been sealed away for a thousand thousand years, but Jordan finds a way to open the door to that dark, dangerous power.
The undermagic embodies the central question of the novel: can the ends justify the means, even if the means are reprehensible? The question is imperative in this time in your history, with ostensibly decent nations using torture and spying on their own citizens in the name of national security, and the question is examined well in The Beggar King. Here, the forbidden power is the undermagic. It grants great power, yet it comes at a terrible cost to Jordan and anyone else who uses it. The Seven Seers of Cir, the seven grandmothers mentioned above, warn Jordan off the undermagic and tell him to instead put his faith in the Great Light, the source of their righteous magic, and to wait for the Great Light to provide a solution. As a staunch Pastafarian, I found this advice a bit overbearing – we Pastafarians don’t wait for the Flying Spaghetti Monster to save our pancetta, we go out there and make our own destinies – and Jordan does too. He uses the undermagic,which brings an evil into the world even more malignant than the Emperor Rabellus: The Beggar King returns for his throne, and only young Jordan Elliot stands in his way.
For its rollicking adventure, beautiful prose, and wonderfully exotic character, The Beggar King is a great read, but the central moral question of the novel makes this great young adult book a real treasure. Pick up a copy of The Beggar King for the young people in your lives.