13 November, 2012

The Boy With Two Heads, by JM Newsome. Book review

Trifolium Books UK, 2012. ISBN 978-0-9568104-4-1. 364 pages. Also available as an e-book. 

Disclaimer: Trifolium Books UK also publish my novel, Paths of Exile. They didn’t ask me to review The Boy With Two Heads, and although I heard of The Boy With Two Heads through them, I don’t think that has affected my opinion.

The Boy With Two Heads is a time-slip novel for young adults, set in ancient Greece in 432 BC and modern Athens and Cumbria (northern England) in 2010. Phidias, master sculptor, architect and engineer, and his brother Panainos, master painter, are historical figures who play important roles in the historical storyline. The main character in the historical storyline, Themis, a young athlete competing in the ancient Olympic Games, is fictional, as are all the characters in the modern storyline. 

In 432 BC, Themistocles (Themis), a twelve-year-old boy living in Athens, is training to compete in the boxing at the Olympic Games to be held later that year, when an accident leaves him unconscious with a serious head injury. In 2010 AD, Suzanne is a fourteen-year-old girl on a school trip to Athens, with athletic ambitions of her own. A road accident on exactly the same spot as Themis’ accident 2,400 years earlier leaves Suzanne in a coma. Somehow her spirit is drawn back through time to keep Themis alive. With the ‘wrong’ spirit inhabiting his body, Themis has no memory of anything before his accident and has to learn about his life all over again, with occasional bewildering glimpses into 21st-century medical technology. Suzanne, unconscious most of the time, sees glimpses of Themis’ life in visions. Gradually, it becomes apparent that Themis is the target of a mysterious plot against his life. Will he survive to compete at the Olympics?  And will Suzanne’s spirit be released back to her, or will she remain trapped in the past for ever? 

As regular readers may know, I am not well attuned to time-slip novels.  I almost always find that I get interested in one storyline, usually the historical one, at the expense of the other (for example, in The House on the Strand, reviewed here earlier).  Unusually, in The Boy With Two Heads I found the modern storyline as intriguing as the historical one.  I read the book twice, and although I picked up some links and cross-references between the two storylines second time round, I still found myself reading it as two separate narratives. Which is not how time-slip novels are meant to be read, so bear in mind that I won’t have appreciated the time-slip aspect of the novel.

The modern storyline has a powerful sense of suspense – will Suzanne make a recovery?  It brilliantly captures the sudden disorienting shock of a serious accident in a city far from home, and the anxiety and fear felt by Suzanne’s friends and family. The author also makes very effective use of modern communication tools such as blogs and Facebook – second nature to modern teenagers – to tell the modern story from several viewpoints, in an ingenious variation on the epistolary novel. 

The historical storyline forms a larger share of the novel than the modern storyline. It is excellent on historical detail, especially as Themis has lost his memory and has to learn about his life and world all over again, so the reader gets to learn it with him. Anyone looking for a painless way to gain a detailed picture of classical Greek housing, food, clothing, travel, athletic training, religion, bronze casting, and the immensely intricate engineering and artistry that went into creating a giant statue of Zeus with ivory skin, gilded robes and glowing eyes, will love this book.  Not to mention the description of the ancient Olympic Games, with the athletes’ oath, the opening and closing ceremonies, the vast tent city housing the competitors, trainers, spectators and hangers-on, and the athletic competitions themselves, culminating in Themis’ boxing bout.

The pace is steady, and I found less of a sense of suspense in the historical storyline than the modern one, because it was not initially clear to me that there was more at stake than Themis getting his memory back.  Having lost his memory, Themis is not aware that he has qualified to compete in the Olympics, and I did not pick up on the seriousness of the plot against him until well into the novel. 

Characterisation is lively, especially that of the cheerful, rotund and rather irreverent Panainos. There are some neat parallels between young people’s issues and dilemmas in the two storylines – some things don’t change much in 2,400 years.  I have a suspicion that Ancient Greece was probably nastier than its portrayal here, but there are limits on what can reasonably be put into a young adult novel, and in any case an athlete from a prosperous family was probably more sheltered than most.

A list of characters is useful for keeping track of the cast, especially minor figures, and a glossary explains the Greek terms used in the text. Both of these are at the back, so it is worth bookmarking them for easy reference.  There is a map of Athens at the front, and maps of ancient Olympia and the sailing route to it at the back, all useful for following the characters’ movements. A brief Author’s Note outlines some of the historical background, and there is more information on the author’s blog.

Time-slip novel for young adults set at the Olympic Games in ancient Greece in 432 BC and in modern Britain.


Rick said...

A lot of YA fiction these days seems to be pretty dark (Hunger Games!). So maybe the author just chose not to go that way.

Maybe I'm unclear on the nature of the interaction between Themis and Suzanne, but the boy doesn't just have two heads - one of them is a girl's. I'd expect this to lead to gender complications of some sort, but since you don't mention any, maybe the connection doesn't play out that way.

Carla said...

Good point - I don't really read enough YA to have a feel for the conventions.

And another good point. If you have a look at the cover image in my earlier post, you'll see that the head of a boy's statue is cleverly combined with what is obviously a girl's head looking the other way. The gender difference is present in the book, and clearly recognised. Some of Themis' friends and family comment that his character has changed (and one actually says he is 'more feminine', if I remember rightly), and Themis himself is aware through a vision that the 'visitor' in his head is a girl. And back in the 21st C, Suzanne talks about '....in a previous life, when I was a boy...'. It isn't all that big a deal - or didn't seem so to me, at any rate. This may be because at least one of the protagonists has not yet reached puberty - Themis is 12. I understand from the author that Themis is that age partly to avoid having too many gender complications.

Connie Jensen said...

Rick- interesting you should have picked up this issue with the title. As editor and publisher, I was closely involved with choosing the title, and Julia and I discussed many possibilities, fixing on this in the end as being very striking, and containing a quotation from the book itself. The whole question of titles is fascinating in itself, as they are often changed between the UK and the US, and frequently, the author doesn't get to choose; rather as a journalist has their headline written by a sub editor. The book cover design too is often out of the author's hands. Designer Kate worked extremely closely with Julia and me to evolve a cover on which every element was carefully chosen to convey a message. Clearly you looked carefully at the design, so the effort was worth it! Thanks for thoughtful and interesting comments Rick and Carla.

Rick said...

So gender complications' is another thing the author decided to mostly stay away from. Which is understandable enough, given that it is the sort of thing that can take over a story once you let it in the door.

Carla said...

Connie - many thanks for coming to comment. The cover design and title fit the book very well.

Rick - yes, that's my reading. It's present but not a major focus. Having protagonists of both genders avoids excluding either - it's clearly a book for both. The historical character pretty much has to be a boy or much of the storyline would be impossible, as girls weren't permitted to compete at the ancient Olympics as far as I know.

Rick said...

Connie - I confess that I didn't look at the cover design at all until Carla mentioned it. My comment was based entirely on the title and plot description.

That confession made, the cover *does* fit very nicely!

The whole question of cover design and titles - and why the latter are sometimes different on the two sides of the Atlantic - is interesting in its own right!

Meghan said...

WHAAA? A book about a boy named Themistocles and it takes place in Ancient Greece AND England? I'm in! <3

Carla said...

Meghan - he isn't your Themistocles, although he might be named after him! Hope you enjoy the book.

My Alpha 76 said...

Sounds like an interesting read, and ties into the Olympic games of summer as well which will inspire me to pick it up and give it a go!

Carla said...

Hope you enjoy the book!