Michelle Paver is a first rate writer, and her previous success with her books should be enough recommendation for this one. However I feel the need to write a longer review, because having completed the book a few days ago, this book has left me hankering for more in a way that is unusual for me these days. I simply have to say something to recommend it!
Before I say more, I would point out that this is book 2 in the series. The first book, "The Outsider" is also first class, good enough that I put this one in my kindle wishlist long before it was published. If you found this review first, don't forget to read "The Outsider" first.
Having said that, the book would almost stand alone. Hylas is trying to find his sister from whom he was separated in book 1, but at the start of this story his journey takes a wrong turn when he is caught by slavers who transport him back in the direction he came from, to a volcanic island where his new masters are mining copper. Condemned to work in the mines, Hylas would come close to despair, but in Michelle Paver's stories, the gods may have a greater purpose, and unwilling as he may be to do so, he will play an important part in it.
I doubt my synopsis truly does this work justice though. Here is why it ticked the right boxes for me though: I have visited the bronze age copper mine on Llandudno's Great Orme a few times in the past, and on each visit I found myself captivated by what I saw. What would it be like to be a copper miner in such a place? We know they used children as miners, but what was life like for such children? I remember walking on the Great Orme wishing there was a book in just such a setting, but it seemed that no one had found a way to make the bronze age sound interesting.
Well now that has all changed, with Hylas and Pirra presenting a captivating pair of protagonists, and the tensions with his friend, or ex friend, Telamon producing a wonderful tension that makes you desperate to know what will happen next.
The different aspects of the culture around bronze age Greece are also well represented with Hylas a poor goatherd and now a slave set off against Pirra, daughter of a priestess and Telamon, a noble born "crow" warrior. The way this unlikely trio are brought together might stretch credulity if we did not see the hands of the gods in this, but the way that Michelle Paver writes it, you never think it unbelievable.
The book is written for children, and I would have no problem with my 9 year old reading this, and my 12 year old devoured the first in the series last year and is now reading this one. However Michelle Paver never speaks down to her audience, and the book is also gritty and realistic.
There is also a lion cub in this story, Havoc, who is an interesting addition, if not a huge surprise that Michelle Paver writes about an animal alongside the human heros.
Anyway this book had me hooked. Bronze age Greece is not a pouplar setting, perhaps because we know less about it. No Zeus and Hades and other such gods here, but the other thing that struck me about this book was that it was beautifully researched. Michelle Paver has clearly studied how animist religion was slowly developing at this period towards an ordered pantheon, and although we cannot know for sure what was believed then, the beliefs put into the mind of Hylas et al., are convincing and well thought out.
Likewise the historical setting shows a lot of careful research, and comes across as believable. The description of the mining is terrifying, and the whole work is educational without ever seeming that way.
Highly recommended. So far this is my best book of 2013.