Sunday, 19 April 2009

Book Review: The Unicorn Road by Martin Davies

Genre: Historical Fiction
Published by: Hodder & Stoughton (2009)
Pages: 324

On the coast of Southern Spain, an English father waits for his son. It is many years since Benedict, then still a child, set out with the famous scholar Antioch on a mission to find and collect the mysterious beasts of the East. In all those years there has been no word, and the expedition is assumed lost. But the boy's father is not the only person asking questions on the harbourside that summer, and as he learns more about his son's companions, he comes to realise that the fate of the expedition has implications for people far richer and more powerful than himself.

My Thoughts:
After reading Martin Davies' debut novel The Conjuror's Bird I was looking forward to reading The Unicorn Road, and I was certainly not disappointed.

First Line:
To lose a small boy in a world so wide is an easy thing.

hese are the words of the father as he waits for Benedict. Every trader he meets he asks for news of his son.

Throughout the novel we return to the father who is visited by various people who are also looking for his son but for their own selfish reasons. I felt so much sympathy for him all the way through and I really longed for him to be reunited with Benedict and to be proud of him. This is my favourite passage from the book as his visitor asks a question:

'Tell me, merchant,' he said. 'In all these years, you say you've had no word. Nothing to give you hope. You ask me to believe that. But why else would you remain here, waiting?'
I felt sorry for him then. Sorry, because for all the cleverness in that sharp face of his, there was something absent, something lost. Somewhere in his forty years he had forgotten how it feels to love.
'I wait here,' I told him, 'because this is all I can do.'

The first part of the story concerns the journey of Benedict and Antioch to the city of Lin'an, also travelling with them is a young woman named Ming Yueh who is meeting her betrothed, together with an Interpreter and a cruel General who, we gradually learn, each have their own reasons for travelling.

I loved Martin Davies' descriptive writing style - this is an excerpt as the travellers are nearing their destination:

Lin'an, the lake city, city of poets, girdled by pleasure gardens, bejewelled with palaces, pitted with brothels; part fantasy, part mystery, part dense, steaming slum. A city that had outgrown itself, so tightly squeezed between the lake and the mountains that beyond the public squares and avenues its streets narrowed to fetid alleyways. There, dwellings jostled for space so fiercely that they leaned upon their neighbours or climbed over them, until they stood three or four storeys high, cutting all light from the passages below.
Fires were the scourge of the city, taking hold in seconds, blazing for days. But in their wake, the houses grew up thicker and faster and the city began to sweat in the heat once more.

It is when they meet the Emperor in Lin'an that we find out everyone's secrets, where men do deals and not everything is all that it seems.

The novel is set in medieval times but we never know the exact year. I was fascinated in the womens secret script, that no man could decipher, that was their own way of communicating between and within the towns. Indeed, the footnote at the end of the book mentions that the last woman to have learned this recently died so this ancient skill is now lost forever.

I just wanted to mention one small observation - Geography was never my strongest subject at school, so I really would have liked a map to plot all the different routes along the way, something similar to one in The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova which I referred to often while reading that book.

I felt that the character of Ming Yueh was most interesting, how her life changes so much throughout the book, and how she copes with everything with dignity and strength and how her strong will helps her survive.

Long after I'd finished the book the characters stayed with me, Martin Davies has written such compelling and fascinating personalities that I felt as if I knew them.

This is a wonderful story of love, hate, greed, kindness, cruelty, courage, religious bigotry, friendship, loss and power that I was completely absorbed in and couldn't put down.

I eagerly anticipate his next novel.

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