The Well Between the Worlds
by Sam Llewellyn
Recommended Ages: 12+
I was so overwhelmed by the strangeness and originality of this book's fantasy conceits that, in spite of several clues, I got halfway through it before I realized that it is a retelling of the Arthurian legend. Color me embarrassed! It mentions a round table. It features a sword in a stone, which only the rightful king can pull loose. It has characters in it named Ector, Uther, Kay, Mark, and Morgan—obvious references to the Arthur mythos—as well as less-obvious but still recognizable aliases, such as Ambrose (Merlin), Murther (Mordred), and Draco (Pendragon). The legend of King Arthur—at least, its earlier parts—provides the overall shape of this story, and thereby makes it deeply and timelessly compelling. Yet at the same time, that outline is filled in with an amazing piece of world-building, whose vivid colors and unique textures transform it almost out of recognition.
Welcome to Lyonesse, a strange country in a medieval world where two kinds of magic are in conflict. Representing the old ways is the druidical magic of Ambrose, who draws power out of starlight and focuses it with the aid of standing stones. In the opposite corner are the Captains from the mysterious neighboring kingdom of High Kernow. Their power relies more on machines, powered by water-dwelling monsters whose bodies burn like thermite on contact with air. These monsters come from another universe, a place endlessly filled with poisonous water, and if given their way they would use their telepathic wiles and their vicious fangs to subdue mankind.
Druid wizard though he may be, Ambrose is a cultured fellow. His lifestyle really straddles the line between the two ways, as he lives among the captains and controls one of the wells. Catching, cutting, and supplying the monsters to be burned in the machines is a big business. It's also a vicious cycle, because each time the portal between the worlds is opened and water is allowed to pour from the monsters' world into ours, the land of Lyonesse sinks. And so more power must be expended to run the pumps that keep the rivers, lakes, and ocean from pouring in and flooding the whole kingdom.
A kingdom needs a king. As our story opens, Lyonesse has a royal heir who is too young to reign. Kyd Murther, a fat spoiled vicious piece of work, is being groomed for the throne by his regent mother, who calls herself Sea Eagle, though everyone else calls her Fish Eagle. If anyone could be worse than Murther, it is Fish Eagle: a creature of terrifying power, who can rummage through people's minds, and feels no qualm against murdering anyone who even thinks about challenging her power. She has dark, dark plans for the future of Lyonesse, plans springing from the depths of the wells themselves.
Who can challenge such a deadly regent? Her private army is ruthless. The people of Lyonesse, through terror and misinformation, are being programmed to submit to her. And though she herself hails from Kernow, her son seems to be the last surviving heir of the previous, rightful king of Lyonesse. The only thing that could possibly stand in her way is the reappearance of the true king's "Lost Children"—an infant boy thought to be dead, and a daughter who vanished. And the whole kingdom is on guard against them.
And yet... Well, I'm not telling it the way the book does. You only find out about all this gradually, along with main character Idris Limpet. Early in the book, this strangely magnetic boy gets separated from his home and loved ones by the prejudice and superstition of the fishing village where he grew up. Not yet twelve years old, Idris escapes a gruesome execution and becomes an apprentice to the Great Ambrose. He studies to be a monstergroom (specializing in catching the creatures to be burned in machines). He develops his telepathic powers, which help him deal with the monsters, but will only last until he reaches puberty. And he finds friendship and even an adopted family, especially with a girl named Morgan, who feels strangely drawn to him. It becomes increasingly obvious that an important destiny lies upon Idris. The question is whether he can live long enough to fulfill it while Fish Eagle's suspicion sprouts into jealousy and finally comes into full flower as deadly enmity.
This is Book One of a series that, depending on whom you ask, is either called "The Monsters of Lyonesse" (cf. most sources), or "The Chronicles of Lyonesse" (Shelfari), or "The Lyonesse" (Amazon), or simply "Lyonesse" (my local library). The second book is titled Darksoltice. Sam Llewellyn is the mind behind the "Little Darlings" trilogy and many other books for adults and children, fiction and nonfiction, mostly related to boating and sailing. For more titles by this author, check out this list, or visit his website.