I was at a job interview recently. It didn’t go well. You know you’re doomed when, having answered a question, the panel pause and stare, if only for half a second. In that moment, on their faces, all is revealed; their eyes flicker – they are horrified by what is before them. A polite reserve kicks in and I get a half-smile, half-wince and a pursed ‘thank you’. It wasn’t to be.
It reminded me of previous interviews and, given my mental state, previous failures. Years back, I flummoxed an interview for a high-street burger chain. Quite extraordinary, given the main requirements were a regular pulse and an ability to stand. Never mind.
Once, I was asked the dreaded question – if you were an animal, what would you be? A mind, with all the millions of neural pathways, has never failed so miserably. I could barely think of an animal, let alone one that resembled my character. I struggle even now. I guess, on reflection, I’m a wombat but I can’t say why. They, for example, have a backward facing pouch and leave distinctive cubic faeces. I claim neither of these things but a wombat is all that comes to mind. Maybe I’m thinking about it too much.
Which leads me nicely, believe it or not, to the Defender of the Realm: Dark Age, the second book from the tag team writing machine that is Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler. Some books, you see, are animals. They can be cats, serene and gentle with odd flashes of fury. Other are birds, almost ethereal, floating above the grime and the noise, revealing themselves gradually, with subtle layers emerging at each gentle turn of the page.
Other books, like Defender of the Realm – Dark Age are a different kind of beast altogether. This one, the second book from Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler, grabs you by the shoulders, slobbers in your face, pounds you to the floor and pummels you into submission. If these pages were alive, it would be an Old English Mastiff or a Great Dane- a big, slathering beast of a book. It’s an enthralling, all-encompassing read. Resistance is futile, just go with and let it take over (and take over it will – you can well imagine reading this one in one sitting, all through the night).
Dark Age picks up where the brilliant first book left off (my review is here, should you wish to take a look). King Alfie is part-monarch, part-superhero – the latest in a long line of regal defenders charged with keeping the country safe. Like the first book, a sense of breathless visual drama is translated to the page. There are sweeping, cinematic scenes and a boldness which allows the setting to leap from Glastonbury to Norway, via the Tower of London. The dialogue is quick and punchy. I’d be amazed if these books didn’t make their way to the screen, big or small.
The first book – and this one – contain many a nod and a wink to James Bond, Batman and Mission Impossible. Their second one goes further, drawing on fantasy role-playing games. Imaginations are truly unfurled. It’s like they wrote Dark Age while rolling a dice (called chutzpah, perhaps) each face containing ever more extraordinary plot twists and turns. Roll the dice and, fearlessly, that’s where the narrative goes.
Across a mere page or two, we have King Alfie, the Defender of the Realm, using his Ring of Command to instruct a group of swans to attack a longboat full of undead Vikings. Extraordinary. It’s a stunning, audacious tale and – thankfully for the ever-growing number of Defender fans – one that leads on to the next book, and the next, and the next.
Maybe I should take the Ostler and Huckerby approach in my next interview. Me? An animal? Roll the dice and see…