Many of you may know the work of Peter Dickinson but this week I’m recommending a book by his equally talented son, John Dickinson.  `The Cup of the World’, which came out in 2004, is the first book in a trilogy. It is my favourite kind of Fantasy – an epic tale set in an invented world. At first this novel may seem rather conventional as it uses that commonest of Fantasy settings: a medieval society in which magic works. There are the usual  kings and princes, knights and ladies, priests and peasants. Gradually nuances become apparent. The warrior nobles who rule `the Kingdom’ are invaders, descendants of iron-wielding Wulfrum and his sons who came across the sea to conquer the  indigenous people now known as the hill people. The ancient powers worshipped by the hill people may still be a force to be reckoned with but the dominant race follow a religion centred on four Archangels `that the Godhead had sent into the world to struggle for souls’.  In this morally complex world it is very hard to tell who, if anyone, is on the side of the angels.

As the story begins, Phaedra the indulged only daughter of the Warden of Trant is on her first visit to the royal court. She witnesses the trial for witchcraft of Lady Evalia and sees her stripped of her lands and forced to marry the only man  willing to defend her. Beautiful intelligent Phaedra impresses the court and soon has many noble suitors but she is reluctant to marry. Phaedra is afraid of dying in childbirth like her mother and she also has a secret. Ever since she was nine years old she has been visited in waking dreams by a handsome young man she thinks of  as`her knight’. In these dreams, they walk together in a strange landscape and drink from a stone cup. Phaedra’s loving father allows her to turn down many suitors but then she learns that one of the king’s sons intends to marry her. When she begs her knight for help, he tells her that his name is Ulfin and promises to come for her soon. The happy ending seems to have been reached by page 88 when Phaedra successfully elopes with her dream lover.

Then the doubts and complications start. Ulfin turns out to be the March-Count of Tarceny but he comes from a family with an evil reputation. After Ulfin and Phaedra are married by a mysterious priest, she expects her father and everyone else to accept the love-match. The Warden is hurt and angry and wants his daughter back. Ulfin persuades Phaedra that he must attack her father’s castle to avoid an invasion of Tarceny and she helps him to do it. The quarrel escalates into a bloody civil war. Phaedra gradually realizes that her husband has many secrets and that the supernatural powers he uses may come at a terrible price.

Among the outstanding features of this book, and the entire trilogy, are devastating plot twists and the depth and subtlety of the characterization. Dickinson is adept at exploiting and then challenging preconceptions. It comes as a shock to realize that you have been misled into supporting the wrong side and that what seemed like a charming romance is something much more sinister. You look back on key scenes and conversations  and learn to interpret them differently.  Many of the characters are enigmatic to begin with, like Evalia, who may or may not be a witch, and Father Martin, who may or may not be a spy. With others, such as Ulfin, you think that you have looked beyond the obvious and understood them and then you find that there is still much more to discover.

`The Cup of the World’  is entirely told from Phaedra’s point of view so the success or failure of  the novel depends on whether you can sympathize with her character. This spoiled wilful girl isn’t easy to like but Dickinson made me feel many different emotions towards her. I was captivated by the intensity of her love for Ulfin, horrified by  the blind selfishness of many of her actions,  saddened by the heartbreak she suffers,  and shocked by the audacity of her revenge. Above all, I never stopped caring about her fate. The very qualities that caused Phaedra to wreak such havoc  later enable her to bind together a disparate band of allies to fight an ancient evil, but the consequences of her actions will haunt her for the rest of her life.  I hope that you will want to follow Phaedra’s story too. Until next week.