The Last of the High Kings: A review

The Last of the High Kings by Kate ThompsonThe Last of the High Kings (2007) is Kate Thompson‘s sequel to her wonderful debut novel The New Policeman (2005). Some time has passed since J.J. was last seen visiting Tir na n’Og to discover where all the time was going. In fact, quite a bit of time has passed. J.J. is now grown with a wife and children of his own. At first, this time lapse was a jolt as was the changed tone between this book and its predecessor–there was something inherently Irish-sounding in the narrative of The New Policeman that was lacking in Thompson’s new book. At least, I thought it was. Upon re-reading it became apparent that the “Irish-ness” was equally present in both novels.

J.J. and his wife Aisling have made a fine home on the Liddy family farm even though J.J.’s music career keeps him too busy for any actual farming. The Liddy children, teen Hazel, eleven-year-old Jenny, nine-year-old Donal, and the destructive two-year-old Aiden also keep their parents busy. Jenny is particularly difficult to reign in with her willful nature and predilection for skipping school to wander the fields with a mysterious white goat.

Although at the core of the story, none of that is where the story starts. Instead the story begins with a young man, now many, many years dead, waiting on a hill of stones to learn where his future lies. Years later, on that same beacon, a ghost stands guard over the hillside for reasons long forgotten. Throughout the novel this ghost’s fate will intertwine with those of the Liddys in unexpected ways that will change the family forever.

The Last of the High Kings, as the name might suggest, integrates a lot of Irish lore into its plot. Fairies, pukas, and of course ghosts, all play important parts in the story. These magical elements work in strange contrast with the commentary on global warming and other man-made maladies that run beneath the surface of the storyline.

In terms of plot, The Last of the High Kings was not always as enchanting as The New Policeman, partly because readers will already know all about Tir na n’Og and Aengus Og but also because this book had to tread different ground and, at times, made J.J. much less clever than readers of the first book will remember. These problems became less bothersome as the plot moved forward and the story began to move along quite nicely by the halfway point.

The characters found within these pages really are just as charming as those found in The New Policeman. Written in the third person, the narrative follows many characters’ points of view. At first this might make the book seem scattered, but it gets easier as the characters become more familiar. Donal, the quiet and introspective member of the Liddy clan, is a particularly delightful addition. This technique also allows Thompson to look at the family as both individuals and a larger unit. While The New Policeman was largely about the land of eternal youth and fairy lore, The Last of the High Kings is firmly grounded in this world dealing with fantastical elements but also especially with the Liddys reconnecting as a family.

(This book will stand alone without its prequel, however to get the full picture it is really vital to read both titles.)

Possible Pairings: The War of the Oaks by Emma Bull (slightly older target audience), The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, Lily’s Ghosts by Laura Ruby,  The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Who knows where the time goes? A review of The New Policeman

The New Policeman by Kate ThompsonJ.J. Liddy, the main character of Kate Thompson’s novel The New Policeman (2005), has a problem: there never seems to be enough time in the day. In fact, there seems to be decidedly less time. With barely enough hours in the day for school and his music, J.J. has no time left over to contemplate the shocking revelation that his grandfather may have been a murderer. To make matters worse, this time problem seems to affect everyone in Kinvara.

When J.J.’s mother reveals that she wants more time for her birthday, J.J. decides to go and find some. A task, at first, that seems like an impossible undertaking for a fifteen-year-old. That is until a neighbor shows J.J. an unlikely place to look for everyone’s lost time.

Even though he doesn’t believe in fairies, J.J. finds himself in Tir na n’Og, the land of eternal youth, and the home of Irish fairies. So begins J.J.’s search of Tir na n’Og to figure out where the time has gone and, more importantly, how to get it back. Along the way J.J. meets a variety of memorable characters including Aengus Og (a personal favorite after finishing the novel).

The narration shifts throughout the book alternating between J.J. in his search for the county’s lost time and the wanderings of the new policeman in Kinvara, Garda Larry O’Dwyer. Like J.J. (and most of Kinvara it seems), the new policeman has a love for music. The new policeman is also almost certain he used to have a good reason for becoming a policeman—if only he could remember what it was.

Thompson expertly entwines these two seemingly disconnected narratives throughout the novel. The common thread between them remains the music that literally runs through the novel. Chapter breaks are denoted by sheet music for traditional Irish songs whose titles relate to the story in addition to the strong affinity all of the characters have for music. By the end of the novel, Thompson ties together both stories creating a sensational end to a truly enjoyable book.

At the same time, The New Policeman is irresistibly Irish, as if you can hear an Irish accent in the narration (or hear a jig or two in the background). The book’s “Irish-ness” is enhanced by Thompson’s integration of Irish mythology and folklore; a glossary in the back explains the pronunciation and origin of especially Irish words like ceili (a dance) or craic (fun).

Thompson’s novel has already received a variety of critical acclaim on the other side of the Atlantic. In addition it is the winner of the Whitbread Children’s Book Award and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Even better, though, is the fact that this book is a great choice for readers of any age. Thompson takes her time arriving at the crux of the plot, but the richness or her writing more than makes up for that. A good book is one that can transport the reader to the place within its pages: The New Policeman does that and more.

Originally published in Great Britain in 2005, this is the first year that The New Policeman was published in the United States. All this reviewer can say to that is it’s better late than never.

Possible Pairings: The Shadows by Megan Chance, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Nature of Witches by Rachel Griffin, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier, The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner