Hidden truths. Hidden power. Hidden destiny.
On the shores of a rusty sea, in the streets of a starving city, a young man named Áed scraps to build a life for himself and the makeshift family he loves. Scarred by a trauma he cannot remember, and haunted by the brutal damage it left behind, he has no idea of the courage his future will demand.
When tragedy strikes, a desperate Áed risks a treacherous, life-changing journey in his last chance to save the only family he has left – but an ancient legacy smoldering within him is about to turn deadly. Neither he – nor a kingdom – will ever be the same.
The title of this book meant that right from the beginning I found myself wondering which of the characters would turn out to be the king. We meet the main character, Áed and his found family, Ninian and their eight year old ward, Ronan, in the dangerous, filthy streets of the gang-infested Maze, a part of the land known as The Gut.
Áed’s beloved Ninian dies after a prize fight near the beginning of the story and we find ourselves fearing for the safety of Áed and Ronan if the gang should come looking for Ninian for his next fight. Our heroes flee the grime they were accustomed to in The Maze and undertake a long arduous journey to the beautiful White City, where they seek refuge without realising this in itself makes them outlaws.
On entering the White City they have to undergo some changes. In order to fit in they must clean themselves up, find some better clothes and no longer speak in the language of the Maze. They need to learn to refer to the Maze as Smudge and the White City as Suibhne. They are fortunate to find themselves hiding from the guards in the apartment of Boudicca – a caring and helpful person who decides rather than handing them over to the guards she will take them in and feed and clothe them while Áed mourns the death of his beloved Ninian.
Soon after their arrival is the Festival of Fire, a time of eating, drinking and dancing to street musicians. It was described so beautifully I found myself really wanting to go to the festival myself:
“Yellow and white flowers hung over the doorway, creating a curtain through which to pass, and in the white-brick street, even the carriages held white-thorn branches and sprigs of frizzy blooms. A magnificent bonfire, roped off with garlands of flowers, roared at the end of the street, and people sat on a few barrels nearby while others maneuvered around them, hoping to fill their cups with whatever the kegs were serving. Along the side of the road, bands of musicians had set up, and they strummed on lyres and blew into flutes, creating a cacophony of competing melodies that echoed through the crisp air.”
I was captivated throughout the narrative by E.G. Radcliff’s beautiful prose. There were many times when I found myself rereading a description just to absorb the words more thoroughly. Here are some examples I particularly liked:
“Áed had not, in the short time he’d known her, seen her look particularly stubborn or angry, but now she donned acrimony as easily as a favorite dress.”
“The illusion of candlelit splendor fell away like a husk to reveal sweating stone walls.”
“The earthy darkness made him panicky, especially since beside the path, bottomless chasms yawned in the gloom. Hundreds of cells passed behind them, each alike, though and some revealed ghoulish faces crowned with wild hair, long beards, or bloody scratches peering through the iron bars.”
“Streaks of quiet light swabbed like paint over the sky, and the clouds, thin over the mountains, had their tendrils cloaked in sheets of orange and red, yellow and pink. Beams of retreating gold highlighted ripples in the clouds and hung illuminated curtains onto the sides of the hills. The grassland swayed, absorbing the fine, warm light, and turned bluish in the shadows as the colors slowly dimmed.”
The Hidden King does contain some themes for the faint-hearted to be aware of:
– There is mention of King Seisyll visiting Smudge to rape women there, although this is never depicted in detail.
As the story progresses we learn that Áed’s adopted mother broke his hands and smashed them with a bottle to try and rid him of his fire power. She then threw him out. He was only 10 years old when he suffered this abuse and shortly after he was found and taken in by Ninian, then together they found Ronan.
– There is a particularly grisly torture scene set in the castle dungeon, where the torturer flays the skin from Áed’s back and he is in agony. Thrashing against his bonds he dislocates a shoulder. Then the torturer begins to tattoo his mutilated back with artistic designs.
I would have liked to learn more about some of the minor characters and their motivations, particularly King Seisyll, Judoc, and Cynwrig. I think the book could have benefitted from a chapter told from each of their perspectives.
I also found I was waiting for more interactions between the world of Fae and the world of The Gut which were not forthcoming. Who was the shadowy character at the Festival of Fire who locked eyes on Áed? Was it just an example to show us that the Fae could attend the Festival?
I think there were some plot holes too – Boudicca is immediately very open with Áed, very trusting. Right away she believes they won’t rob or hurt her. Would Boudicca have allowed these strangers to stay overnight in her apartment so readily? I doubt it, especially when her brother is General of the Autumn Guard and as such would have made sure she was very aware of security issues pertaining to her personal safely.
Another event that niggled at me was the lack of guards in the throne room when Seisyll and Áed were left together. Why was nobody there to protect the King when Áed attacked him? This seemed highly unlikely.
However these small niggles did not put me off the story at all. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to all fans of fantasy and beautiful descriptive writing. I look forward to reading The Last Prince which I understand is a prequel to this story and any future stories by E.G. Radcliff, whatever their subject matter. Her prose could make a laundry list unputdownable!!
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