The Polaris Whisper

Kenneth Gregory's debut fantasy novel leaves John Higgins desperate for the next two volumes

I don’t really do fantasy. I’ve never even seen Game of Thrones. There’s something about hirsute, taciturn men hitting each other with blunt objects that puts me off. Maybe it’s the lack of humour or the lack of women, beyond tavern wenches or haughty princesses waiting to be tamed by glowering alpha males who could probably use a shower.

I’m sure there are endless exceptions to this much maligned genre, and I’m sure my ignorance is my loss, but beardy types called Argorn Squint-Foot knocking people about with their halberds has never been my cup of mead. So I was surprised when I picked up Kenneth Gregory’s debut novel, The Polaris Whisper, by how much I enjoyed it and how turnable its pages were – it was like Gregory had oiled them.

The Polaris Whisper is the story of a quest. Actually it is the story of any number of quests. Most of the main characters seem to be marked by destiny in one form or another.

The Yoda-like Cado, a dwarf gifted with mystical powers, weaves fates like the Norns of Norse mythology – firstly that of Vidar, warrior and wayfarer, and latterly that of his son, Niclaus, who is being raised by a foster family and can never know who his father is.

The book leaps back and forth between Niclaus’ time and 30 years earlier – whereupon we meet a young monk named Thomas, an illuminator of manuscripts in Ireland, and Hakon the Black, a terrifying Viking Lord. It is to Gregory’s credit that not only does he keep tabs on what everybody is doing 30 years apart, but he finds interesting things for them to do: this is literary plate spinning par excellence.

Gregory manages this by plotting the book like an RKO serial: the chapters are short, the prose plain and efficient, and cliff-hangers come every four or five pages. Achieving this between two different time periods with seemingly different casts of characters could be jarring. But as the story progresses, the twin narratives start to coalesce, the barriers break down, characters ultimately pop up in both strands and you realise that what you are reading are forced perspectives on a much larger story.

It’s not all great. The dialogue in particular can be a bit clunky. Windy gales of 'hail–fellowing' and the crashing of frothing tankards are often followed by disconcertingly modern sentence structures, especially from the sulkier, younger character.

Likewise the research is worn rather too heavily in some places. In an early passage in which Vidar prepares himself for a lengthy sojourn in the icy wastes of Svalbard, a surprising amount of time is given over to the various layers of clothes he puts on in order to brave the elements.

But then again I would imagine there are a lot of people who would be very pleased to have that knowledge. And no knowledge is bad, even if it is the intricacies of 8th century whaling. Besides, the approach to hunting snowbears or Niclaus’ ultimate trial might be completely fictitious. It’s a mark of Gregory’s plausibility as a writer and his attention to detail that gives this book its authenticity. I never question the veracity of his work for an instant.

You should not pick up The Polaris Whisper for its emotional resonance or crisp dialogue. Nevertheless, this is a book that whips along at hair-raising pace, has oodles of fights of all sizes – from schoolboy scraps to huge marauding armies – is marbled with mysticism and sets up the huge dynastic struggles for the other two books in the series. (It is, necessarily, the first part of a trilogy.)

And there is something in the final pages of this book that is so odd, so strangely out of keeping with the rest of the story and yet so obviously germane to it, that I can’t quite believe what I am reading and what it ultimately means.

It is absolutely the strangest planting of a narrative seed I think I’ve ever read, and it will have you desperate to get hold of the sequel to see what the author does with it. I expect we shall find out as the last words, glowering and monumental as though hewn from living rock, read: 'The Beginning.'

The Polaris Whisper is out now, published by Blackstaff Press.