Book review: The Halfmen of O

When I first read ‘The Halfmen of O’ by Maurice Gee as a child, it gave me such bad nightmares that I hesitated to pick it up again as an adult.

However, having done so, I was quite glad I did.

Having done a little more research on the book, I discovered that it is actually the first in a trilogy by the respected New Zealand author, the others of which are  ‘The Priests of Ferris’ and ‘Motherstone’. They are all still in print with Penguin, despite being written in the 1980s.

The story is based around two children, Susan and Nick, who travel to the parallel world of O through a mineshaft, hidden in a valley in rural New Zealand. Susan has a mark on her wrist which marks her out as the only person who can save O from the evil Otis Claw and his halfmen.

Generally speaking, this is a good adventurous romp for children and young adults, with lots of action, interesting ‘peoples’, and great world creation. As I mentioned earlier, it did give me nightmares as a child (perhaps that’s just my sensitive nature!), but the descriptions of the evil characters are quite satisfyingly nasty. For example:

” As if in answer, a  hideous cry came winding through the air. The pain of it made them cover their ears. It was like a fingernail scraping on a blackboard – but it was filled with hatred and mindless cruelty. Far below, sunlight came at last to Marna’s basin. The stream shone like silver and the grass was suddenly painted green and gold. It was like a jewel, an opal, set on the edge of the forest. But the cry hung over it, a ghastly echo; and the Deathguard came bursting from the wall and scattered like an army of black ants across the grass.

The Bloodcat came, held on a leash by Odo Cling. The sun made it burn like fire. It was not large. It stood no higher than Odo Cling’s waist. But even at that distance they could see its awful sinuousness and hideous strength, and feel its blood-lust quivering in the air. It was the colour of an open wound.”

Two pieces of appropriation were evident to me reading it now which did not occur to me as a young reader, and which perhaps spoilt it a little bit this second time around.

The first was the use of the ying-yang symbol (although never named as such) to as the Mark. It is an ancient symbol of balance, so  I suppose that it does make sense to use it in this story, but it did jar with me a little.

The other thing which becomes apparent are the obvious parallels between ‘The Halfmen of O’ and Tolkiens ‘Lord of the Rings.’ I don’t want to give away the plot here, but the coincidence of having the one true bearer of the Mark who can save the world, and who becomes increasing introverted and obsessed with the task is a striking one. The children (are we thinking Frodo and Sam now?) are assisted by many different mythical beings on their quest against a dark army.

To be fair, this is probably a great introduction to the world of Tolkien if you are too young to get to grips with the Rings, which of course was not written for children.

So my rating? 3.5 stars. It is gripping and well written, but not wholly original.

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