Amanda Hemingway, The Greenstone Grail (Ballantine, 2004)
Amanda Hemingway, The Sword of Straw (Ballantine, 2006)
Amanda Hemingway, The Poisoned Crown (Ballantine, 2007)
Nathan Ward seems an ordinary enough kid, except when you consider that both of his parents -- his mother Annie, and his deceased father Daniel -- are Caucasian, which doesn't explain his curiously dark complexion. Or that his uncle (not really his uncle) Bartleby possesses mysterious knowledge. Or that he's been having the strangest dreams that seem to transport him, more and more bodily, into a fantastic, dying world, all of which seems to tie in to a renewed interest in an ancient greenstone cup, which may or may not be the Holy Grail.
Probably not. Despite using a fair number of Arthurian symbols, Hemingway steers clear of the myth for the most part, choosing instead to create new histories for the Grail while explaining most of the Arthurian myths as embroideries upon the cup's true nature. As it is, the Grail's power is rumoured to be able to open the Gate between worlds, and so it is pursued by characters both good and evil, human and less so. While Nathan's increasing powers of otherworldly transportation are one thing, the Grail, combined with its sister artefacts the Sword and the Crown (explained in later novels) contains the potential for more powerful magics.
Rowena Thorn, the last descendent of the cup's first earthly owner, wants to recover the cup because she believes it's her family's sacred responsibility to protect it. The Grandir, emperor of the magically polluted world that Nathan visits in his dreams, believes the Grail could save him and his people from their world's imminent doom. Other, more magical and sinister beings desire the Grail for their own selfish ends. So it remains up to Nathan, with his world-hopping, to prevent the Grail from being mishandled.
In The Sword of Straw, Nathan's dreams start carrying him into a far different world than the futuristic Eos he visited in Greenstone Grail. In this quasi-medieval planet, he meets an impoverished princess with an ailing father who's struggling to keep their tiny kingdom together. The family's magic heirloom, a cursed sword, has kept the King bedridden for a decade, and encroaching monsters known as Urdemons have frightened all but the barest handful of subjects away. The last novel revealed that the Greenstone Grail was placed on Earth to protect it from those too evil or just too incompetent to use it properly, so Nathan assumes the same was done for the Sword in this world, and believes it's his job to recover the blade and bring it back to Earth for safekeeping.
However, no one's forgotten about the Grail, now under wizard Bartleby's guardianship. The entire spectrum of baddies, from Nenufar, the malevolent water-spirit from the first novel, to a trio of teenage thugs manipulated by an insidious outside source, remain as eager as ever to steal the cup for themselves. And matters certainly aren't helped by Hazel, Nathan's underachieving and neglected best friend, who's started meddling in witchcraft to make up for Nathan's absence.
If one finds the story of a magically-talented, fatherless boy with a contrary female friend and a wizardly mentor a bit similar to another, mind-bogglingly popular boy-wizard character, one's not alone. The author makes several cheeky references to Harry Potter herself, and many of the supposed similarities in the story (like Nathan's relationship with his boarding-school's headmaster, and Nathan's spindly fairy friend Woody) are cunningly turned on their heads by the novel's end, in a fitting slap on the wrist to readers too eager to draw easy comparisons.
Also, unlike Harry Potter, adults have just as important a part to play in the story as the meddling kids. Nathan's mother Annie is an especially well-drawn and sympathetic character. As she discovered in the first novel, she was not mysteriously impregnated by her dying boyfriend Daniel, but by someone else, someone from a different world entirely. Her repressed shock and rage over what she sees as essentially a rape, as well as her fearful reluctance to tell Nathan the truth, give her a depth not often seen in the parents of "magical child protagonists," as the parents in these types of stories are usually dead or a part of the scenery.
Events come to a head in The Poisoned Crown. With the help of Eos' Grandir, Nathan finds the final Grail artefact, the iron Crown, in the universe of Widewater -- a planet drowned by a greedy water-goddess whose other-world sister, Nenufar, is scheming to do the same to Earth. The last of the planet's warm-blooded creatures reside in the northern icecaps, but the water-goddess' hatred of all things airbreathing, and thus not under her rule, is an ever-present threat.
However, the water-goddess isn't the only problem Nathan has to deal with. Once the crown is recovered, there is still the Great Spell that has to be cast using the three Grail artefacts -- along with distressing hints at a "sacrifice" that must be made in order for the spell to take affect. As well, Nathan's relationship with the Grandir takes an interesting turn that will surprise no one who has read the first two books -- indeed, given the slightest of hints, Nathan discovers the truth for himself refreshingly quickly.
Nathan, of course, holds together the trilogy as a strong and appealing protagonist. He's tall, handsome, popular, smart, athletic -- it would have been way too easy to have made him a Mary Sue (Gary Sue?) character, but Hemingway makes him special, without being too special. It's mostly his relationships with the other characters, like his mother Annie and his fractious friend Hazel, that maintain him as a realistic character who's not too perfect to relate to.
Nathan's talents also allow him to hold out against an adventurous backdrop that's a mite darker than might be expected. Along with issues of rape, the trilogy deals with torture, murder, possession, kidnapping, infanticide, environmental destruction, and snooty Londoners. The cute factor is kept admirably low in this trilogy, being mainly relegated to Eric, a man yanked from another world who's convinced the Star Wars trilogy is a historical document, and Bartleby, who prefers baking cookies to fighting off baddies. And speaking of baddies -- the villains are remarkably well-conceived, and come off as menacing, powerful, and in the case of the Big Baddie (whose identity comes as a real surprise) intriguingly morally ambiguous.
But "surprise," for author Hemingway, is an interesting concept. Nothing in this trilogy turns out quite like expected, but the narrative is veined with subtle hints that allow each development to fit reasonably within the story arc without being a deus ex machina. Hemingway shades her story with layers of darkness without sacrificing warmth or humour, her conclusions may be pat but they are never easy, and she deftly manipulates beautiful and fantastic elements while maintaining the realism and liveliness of Nathan's real world life. Basically, the Sangreal Trilogy offers something smart, something fun, and rarer still, something new to the realm of (somewhat) Arthurian fantasy.