Awakening by William Horwood

A while ago, I reviewed Hyddenworld by William Horwood, and loved it. Hyddenworld is the first in a quartet of fantasy novels, each linked to a season - Hyddenworld was spring, and Awakening, the second, is summer.

I enjoyed Hyddenworld so much that I bought Awakening in hardback as soon as it was released - something I almost never do. But I did so with some trepidation. Hyddenworld was going to be a hard act to follow, and I wasn't sure if Awakening could live up to it.

Fortunately, I wasn't disappointed. Awakening is a beautiful book. Like Hyddenworld, it's a complex story simply told, with a perfect balance of huge themes and well-chosen detail. 

To my delight, there's a lot more of Bedwyn Stort in this story. Stort was my favourite character from Hyddenworld, and he's developed more fully in Awakening, with a central role to play in the action. I applaud Horwood for making Stort (who is essentially an eccentric academic) the hero of a fantasy novel. The characterisation of the sinister dictator Emperor Slaeke Sinistral and the vile Witold Slew is also brilliantly done. Once again, I was reminded a little of Mervyn Peake - and as a huge admirer of Peake, I don't make that comparison lightly.

Awakening strikes me as a darker book than Hyddenworld - even bleak, at times. The Earth in Awakening is in pain, and both human and hydden civilisation is under threat as a result. Bochum, the hydden city that lurks beneath a festering rubbish tip populated by savage dogs, is a sinister dystopian creation, and the chapters from the point of view of the remorseless psychopath Witold Slew are chilling. Moreover, the 'wyrd', or destiny, of certain characters seems to condemn them from the start, and it's heartbreaking at times to see them come to terms with it. Hydden Jack and human Katherine struggle to cope with their 'Shield Maiden' daughter Judith as she matures from baby to adult in the space of a year, and Judith herself cries with the physical and psychological pain of growing up.

But despite all that, there's a strong sense of hope and warmth running through Awakening too. There's a glorious vibrancy to some of the scenes, and it's a book with a big heart in which love plays a strong and vital role. The love between Arthur and Margaret, a couple in their seventies, is just as strong and sensitively portrayed as that between teenagers Jack and Katherine, and there are some deeply touching moments involving Stort, who in Hyddenworld professed to yearn for love while simultaneously failing hopelessly to understand what it really is.

Cleverly structured, with multiple viewpoints and story threads that interweave as the narrative progresses, picking up pace and tension, Awakening is another triumph from William Horwood. I just hope he's working on Autumn now - I can't wait.