- The Teen, The Witch & the Thief and The Comeback of the King by Ben Jeapes
- Reviewed by Sandra Unerman, Vector #285 – Spring 2017
Ted Gorse is a sixteen-year-old boy with a police caution for shoplifting, who does not get on with his stepfather. The Teen, the Witch & the Thief begins as he starts work in a second-hand bookshop in Salisbury. The rest of the family go away on holiday, except for Ted’s younger brother, who is in a hospice, in a catatonic state. Ted enjoys his job and visits his brother whom he loves. But he cannot suppress the kleptomaniac impulses he does not understand. He soon encounters the Witch and the Thief, who are engaged in a struggle to control supernatural forces capable of taking over the world. These forces have affected Ted, his family and his best friend, Stephen, in ways Ted discovers slowly and painfully. He has to choose the right side in the struggle and work out how to use his IT skills in an entirely unexpected context.
The Comeback of the King is a new adventure for Ted, which continues the themes of the first book but deals with different challenges. This time, he operates more independently, against an antagonist who is less actively malicious but has a more widespread impact on the local community. The King who wakes from the earth was worshipped many thousands of years ago and has plans to take back his kingdom. Unless Ted can work out how to stop him, he will cause destruction and devastate people’s lives. The book does not mention King Arthur, although the characters talk about plenty of other kings. Instead, we are given a vision of the possible consequences, both comic and tragic, if aspects of the Arthurian legend really did come to life.
The books have a strong sense of places. Salisbury’s streets are pictured in detail and the cathedral is the setting of some of the most importance scenes in The Teen, while the landscape matters more in The Comeback. Both books evoke a strong sense of the past. In The Teen, this comes across early in Ted’s vision of meta-Salisbury, where the different layers of the city’s history are all present in the same place at the same time. ‘The shops he ran past were modern and seventies grey concrete and Victorian redbrick and more grimy black and white timber … Every structure was distinct in its own style and they were all there at once.’
In The Comeback, we are in the King’s point of view as he wakes on the grassy mound that was once Old Sarum, and throughout the book as he notices the changes to the land the people. We are made aware both of the astonishing prosperity of modern Salisbury by comparison and of its ecological impact. The river floods when the King calls his Queen out of the water and she breaks down the weir.
The magic in these books is closely interwoven with computer technology, a theme declared early with the slogan on Ted’s t-shirt, ‘Geek and Proud’. Ted and his friend Stephen design their own computer programmes, which are critical to the methods they eventually use to engage with the supernatural. The battle in The Teen is for control of the Knowledge, a pool of magical expertise. This is visible to Ted in Salisbury Cathedral as ‘a vortex, wormholy, twisty kind of thing that people would step into in all the right kind of movies.’ In The Comeback, the King’s magic has nothing to do with computers but Ted has to think in IT terms in order to find a way to fight him.
The books provide plenty of action. Some of the most powerful scenes do not involve magic, as when Ted and his friend Zoe have to evacuate children from a fire at the hospice, and when he has to climb down the spire of the cathedral. The magical battle in The Teen feels too much like a computer game, but there is a more interesting use of magic when Ted tries to restore his brother’s mind through gathering memories of him from the Knowledge.
Ted is an appealing hero, despite an irritating tendency to get into unnecessary trouble. Of the other characters in both books, Malcolm, the bookshop owner, and Barry, Ted’s stepfather, come across the most strongly, both interesting in their different ways. The female personalities made less impression, although they do have important roles to play, not just as subordinate to the men.
From the outset of The Teen, it is clear that a supernatural struggle is going on. It is not so clear, however, who is on the right side. Ted engages the reader’s sympathies but he makes mistakes and our doubts about who to trust and how far continue at different levels through most of the book. In The Comeback, the complexity is of a different kind, because the King himself is a charismatic figure to the reader as well as to his subjects. In both books, the excitement is increased by these uncertainties.
The fantasy in these books appeals partly by the way it draws attention to the realities of ordinary life, to Salisbury as it is now compared to the land of forests and rivers the King once knew, for example. But the fantasy is also powerful in the way it makes Ted face up to crucial moral and emotional choices.
These books would be a good introduction to modern fantasy for young computer enthusiasts and are a fun read for anybody.