With The Sword of Straw, the second book in her Sangreal Trilogy, author Amanda Hemingway proves she didn't lose a step since writing the first, The Greenstone Grail. The Sword of Straw is, like the first installment, a delight, one that feels light and airy but packs a narrative drive that had this reviewer hating to put the book down.
As the story opens, Nathan Ward, now 14, has had a quiet year since his adventures of the previous summer and finds himself wishing for some action. Nathan is an unusual young man; although smart, handsome, and athletic, he's also preternaturally kind and wise beyond his years. But Nathan's strangest attribute is that when he sleeps, he can dream himself into other universes -- literally. In The Greenstone Grail, he visited Eos, a dying world with a myth of renewal involving a grail, a sword, and a crown. The grail was hidden in Nathan's world; the sword, we find out in The Sword of Straw, is hidden on another world, in the kingdom of Wilderslee.
As Nathan visits Wilderslee in dreams, his best friend Hazel discovers her powers in this world as a witch. At school, Nathan is beset upon by a bully four years his elder and is watched by the school's abbot, who seems to know everything that happens without being told. As the school year comes to a close, the action comes to a head, and Nathan finds he has things in himself and forces acting around him he never would have guessed.
Not spending as much time as its predecessor on exposition and referencing its many literary and cinematic influences, The Sword of Straw flows swiftly. Some of the main characters in the first book make only cameo appearances here, but the new characters fill their shoes completely. The main characters remain interesting, and the supernatural remains challenging, both in old and new forms. Although there are certainly some black-hat/white-hat aspects to the characters, and the good characters' motives are always good (or they at least mean no serious harm), the good guys often make mistakes and let emotion blind them, which humanizes them. They also continue to keep secrets from one another when disclosure could make a big difference (personally, it makes me want to yet at them sometimes -- "Just tell him!!"). Some of the bad characters are thoroughly rotten, but they are mostly non-humans, or humans who have chosen the wrong path (and thus weren't evil to begin with). Sometimes one just can't tell, because what seemed evil before is, when we get more information, shown in a different light.
Amanda Hemingway is doing a great job with her trilogy, giving us just enough more information about the overall story to sustain momentum but not reveal too much. I feel like I can guess some of the larger story arc - there are some things that simply must be, given the structure of the larger narrative - but the details of getting there I find surprising; I can't say I guessed any of the important plot points in The Sword of Straw. The Sangreal Trilogy is shaping up nicely, and I truly look forward to the concluding volume of the trilogy, to see how it all sorts out.