A Book Ian Likes: A Mirror For Princes by Tom de Haan

Reyhnard is living in a small village, doing some menial work to pay his rent, sharing a cottage with a girl his neighbours view as “simple”. He’s also writing his memoirs: an account of the time when he was a prince, the third son of King Basal of Brychmachrie. He’s also recounting the events that led up to him leaving a life of complete luxury for one of hardship and obscurity.

First things first: I love this book with the power of a thousand suns. I’ve read it every few years over the last thirty years or so and found something new in it each time. If you haven’t read this book, I’m urging you to seek it out now.

What’s great about it? I mean, it wilfully defies any kind of genre classification: it’s set in a made-up world, but it has no magical or supernatural components. It features elements we might recognise from any number of cultures here in our world, but it can’t be slotted into our history anywhere. It’s a story about royalty, exploring the concept that hereditary rule is a stupid idea. It’s a grim novel about the neglect a distant parent can engender, featuring a set of siblings who adore each other. It can’t be pinned down into any kind of label except for “fiction.” It’s also beautifully written and plotted: Tom de Haan puts together a sentence in a way that the rest of us can only dream about. He uses symbols the way our English teachers told us was proper and fitting, but also interestingly. And he creates a setting and characters that you just know are real somewhere. Just not anywhere you might want to visit in a hurry… and the follow-up novel, set slightly earlier but with many of the same themes, further reinforces this. The real kicker is that he was only 24 when this was published.

24!!!

Well, what’s it about? It’s the life story of Reyhnard. He is overshadowed by his incredibly competent elder brothers and their astoundingly talented and ruthless father who engineered a coup against the previous king and married his daughter, securing his own claim to the throne of the ancient kingdom of Brychmachrie. Reyhnard has been largely ignored by his father all his life, but not unnoticed, so he comes to dread the moments when his father pays him some attention as it invariably leads to some kind of humiliation in front of the entire court as a casual or impromptu demonstration of Basal’s power and ruthlessness, even to the extent of having his lover marry Reyhnard when she steps too far in her desire for power. And then the sister that Reyhnard never knew he had is brought to court…

It’s a grim, quasi-historical fantasy written a decade before the form was popularised by George R. R. Martin and Guy Gavriel Kay. The title refers to a genre of literature written in nearly every society that’s had a ruling class since the dawn of time that seeks to advise rulers on the finer points of ruling well. The message Mr de Haan seems to be imparting here is that ruling should be left to those who have an aptitude for it… but not for too long.

I first read this book when I was undergoing a crisis of conscience about how much I was enjoying fantasy as a genre. I was also studying Literature as a course in my teaching degree at the time and I was being exposed to a lot of books that I might not ordinarily have come across. However, I was becoming acutely aware of the presence of a “canon” in literature and that a lot of what I enjoyed would never be considered a part of it. Especially by a lot of people whose opinions I respected at the time and who would never admit to reading my favoured books in a pink fit.

(As an aside, you may know people like that: before genre fiction became part of our background noise, people would turn their noses down on it. They might have admitted to reading The Lord Of The Rings when younger, or The Chronicles Of Narnia when a child but THAT. WAS. IT! They might read the occasional airport novel every now and then these days, but their tastes are modern and sensible, thanks very much. Trouble is, I very rarely saw some of them with a book in their hands outside of required reading and they would never admit to reading for FUN.)

So I spent a couple of years on a vague course of literary self-improvement. I read the books on my course list, then started reading books that were referenced in the articles and books that I was reading to help me in my studies of said book list. It was made simpler by the fact that I was already familiar with some of the work being referenced through the literary pretensions of my favourite writers: a lot of genre writers would often (I say “would” because it is a practice that seems to have fallen out of favour in recent years) use a quote or a reference from a better-known work of higher literature to throw their own deathless prose into sharp relief. Arthur C. Clarke and John Wyndham frequently did that in their novels (Sir Arthur would frequently do it with his titles, as well), while Stephen King is incapable of completing a chapter without some sort of throwaway reference to poetry or music. But it was books like A Mirror For Princes that made me realise that while important books mean a lot to a culture in terms of creating a shared heritage, what is important to an individual reader is very often quite different. Books can be a form of mental television for some people, while they are instruction manuals for life to others, or gateways to new layers of wisdom for still others.

Another thing my unofficial course of study made me realise is that reading can and should be fun. Or at least enjoyable. I do get a lot of enjoyment out of the classics and other worthy literature, but reading isn’t a calling or a vocation where you must aim higher with every passing task. It’s a hobby, a pursuit. I no longer read to improve myself: I read because I love it and because I get more out of it than nearly anything else I do. And while I love the classics, they aren’t the only thing I read, nor should they be. I try to read widely but I also try to find things that I will enjoy or at least get some kind of a buzz out of. Because things we love shouldn’t be a chore.

A Mirror For Princes is the kind of book that makes me enjoy reading. It gives me a buzz. It was one of a long series of books that made me realise that, in the long run, I should read for myself and nobody else. And while Reyhnard’s chronicles of his life are hardly inspirational (except for people who are actively trying to find reasons to avoid responsibility) they are lively, clever and put you firmly into its invented world, making it grim, real and visceral in a way that a lot of fiction doesn’t quite manage (it comes firmly down on the side of investment of belief rather than suspension of disbelief, but that’s a topic for another day). It also does things to the written word that are the equivalent of the effects of a well-aged wine or a finely-tailored suit: everything combines and fits in a way that you experience only rarely and makes you feel warm and buoyant amidst the chaos around you.

This is the part where I usually include a website for the author. But there’s very little information about him anywhere so, should you wish to find it yourself, here’s the book’s ISBN instead: 9780394563596

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