Toby Parker is loathed by his classmates. It’s not hard to see why; he makes unfunny jokes at their expense in class, he hates everything about his school, he longs to make a friend yet when he’s reached out and tried ‘to use some words they came out wrong’. 13-year-old Toby is desperate for his Dad’s approval, but his efforts to impress are met with indifference or sarcasm. ‘Life isn’t fair’ is his father’s only encouragement. Dad is a writer specialising in ‘curses and put-downs’ for TV and Radio; recently he’s become a speech-writer for the government. (Any Downing Street model come to mind?) When he’s not writing professionally, he’s working obsessively on a fantasy novel about a land called Balthasar.
Dad’s favourite domestic put-down is ‘Are you deliberately being stupid?’ used as cruelly to his wife as to Toby. Mum is drained of life, struggling to offer Toby loving support, finding escape only in her climate change activism. She glues herself to a bank during a demo, leading to her arrest, a marital showdown and a decision to divorce. So Toby’s fragile world is close to demolition. His only friend is Alfred, a cat belonging to the family’s lodger, Mrs Papadopoulos, a Greek opera singer.
Toby and his Mum move to a new location; Alfred chooses to come along as well. One night, Toby is out for a walk with Alfred, when the cat disappears down some road works – a trench with an entrance to a tunnel at the end. Toby goes in pursuit, and before he knows it, he’s slipped through the tunnel from our world into another. Readers have already met a being from this otherworld in the shifting shape of a mysterious shadow, seemingly driven by hatred in all its actions. That shadow is soon to reappear in the plot, which plays out throughout the remainder of the novel in the land Toby has just entered. The country’s name is – Balthasar.
Toby is in immediate danger. He’s found himself in a raging wildfire on a forested mountainside where he witnesses a brutal stabbing with the corpse hurled over a cliff edge. The murderer catches sight of Toby – so now he’s a potential victim himself. The people of this otherworld all speak contemporary English. Yet they’ve never heard of mobile phones or buses or electricity and, despite the modern idiom, this seems to be a medieval society, governed with absolute power by rulers who think nothing of chopping off the hand of a starving child when her father steals food. Soon, Toby meets Tamurlaine, a girl some three years older than himself; she too seems lost, with no memory of her past. The pair, along with the intrepid Alfred, are caught up in a series of adventures as they make their way to the city and its castle, the seat of power. Toby has learned that the only way he can return to his own world is through the city’s Dreamers, who might use their skills to dream him home. Tamurlaine is hunting for her own history, which in due course reveals a role for her which could shape the lives of everyone in her troubled homeland.
In effect, both are searching for their own identities – to become the people they need to be. Toby and Tamurlaine change and grow through the challenges they endure. Toby now looks beyond himself, not least through his concern for Tamurlaine and for her country’s persecuted underclass. He is ready to return home with a more perceptive love for his mother – and even an increased understanding of the bitterness which consumes his father. In no way does Lambert suggest a glib expectation of living happily ever after.
The novel’s length may test the stamina of some readers in the publishers’ suggested 9+ age range, but there is page-turning excitement in the narrative; and, as readers of Lambert’s debut novel, The Wolf Road, will anticipate, this wandering tale often surprises in its poetic exploration of language.