A few weekends ago, I went camping in a state park that contained the ruins of an abandoned sandstone quarry. After hiking around the park in the morning, I relaxed at the campsite in the afternoon, taking the quiet time to start a fantasy trilogy that I'd never read before--Amanda Hemingway's Sangreal Trilogy. The first book in the series, The Greenstone Grail, starts with a prologue about a boy named Nathan who discovers the ruins of an ancient chapel, deep in the woods.
Although I soon learned that the series is takes place in England, rather than the midwestern United States, the initial connection made by the similarity between the book's setting and my own was hard to shake. For the rest of the camping trip, the thought lingered in the back of my mind that perhaps there was more to the old buildings I was seeing than meets the eye, and as I continued reading The Greenstone Grail, I was drawn into the narrative more quickly because of the familiar feeling of the opening chapter. This reading experience was fascinating for me, and made me think of how our own settings while we read can help us to more fully experience the setting of what we are reading.
While Hemingway's trilogy felt familiar to me because of the similarities between my surroundings and the opening of the first book, it feels familiar for other reasons as well--at its heart, it is a Grail quest, in which Nathan has to find three ancient relics and bring them together to, well, save the world. It also is set in England, and has a young adult protagonist, both of which call to mind several well-known and beloved series.
But Hemingway isn't just cashing in on a formula that has worked for other classic fantasy series--she draws attention to what she is drawing from, having Nathan, his best friend Hazel, and his mother Annie talk about how their experiences are like those of the Pevensies, or how Nathan's school isn't like going off to Hogwarts. In many ways, it is doing the same thing that Jo Walton's Among Others does--it's a love letter to all the works that Hemingway mentions, but it's a more subtle approach that I found less intrusive and more compatible with the narrative.
Hemingway's trilogy is also more than just a retelling of the Grail quest. She changes it in significant ways, the biggest of which is that Nathan has to travel between worlds to look for the objects of his quest. He travels in his dreams, which provide a very logical entry point for the fantastic into a narrative that is otherwise sprinkled with mentions of Google, Star Wars, and George W. Bush. Together, such changes make for a story that is both familiar and new, a series that kept me intrigued, and an ending that was both a surprise and, when looking back at what had happened, totally expected.
Yet it is in the familiar and personal that Hemingways's novels are the strongest. The scenes with the characters close to Nathan are what made me personally invested in the novels, and for this reason, I found the second book in the series, The Sword of Straw, to be the strongest. Nathan's dream-travels in the first and third book seem to take him to a wider variety of places, and I found that many of the descriptions of these places were focused on the physical details of the place, rather than the people who lived there. I found myself skimming through these passages, looking forward to the time when Nathan would return to our world to talk about his travels with his mother, Hazel, or his not-really-his-Uncle Bartlemy. The second book focused more on Nathan's interactions with one particular character in one particular world, which made his dream travels in this novel as compelling as his interactions with friends and family on Earth.
My biggest complaint with the series is that the portrayal of gender roles falls along very stereotypical lines--Nathan is the clear-thinking, level-headed hero, while Hazel is the emotional, irrational female. At one point, Nathan even objects to Hazel being the hero by saying, "But you're a girl," and the narrative (as far as I could tell) lets his statement stand without judgment. While I certainly don't require that all fantasy protagonists be female, I would like to see greater effort made (by all literature, not just fantasy/scifi) to break down the association of men with rational thought and women with emotion, as well as the privileging of rational thought over emotion.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed Hemingway's series, and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a more mature version of Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising sequence. I found it to be creative and engaging, particularly in the characters we get to know well, and because of it, I even found out about a classic children's fantasy series that I somehow missed--Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequel, The Moon of Gomrath. To the library!