The bestselling Young Adult author known to the world as Darren Shan has been busy for the past few years, writing an eclectic array of novels for older readers under the pseudonym of Darren Dash. But now four years on from the conclusion of his Zom-B books Shan is back on YA territory with the first three instalments of his brand new Archibald Lox Series.
1 Archibald Lox & The Bridge between Worlds
2 Archibald Lox & The Empress of Suanpan
3 Archibald Lox & The Vote of Alignment
The release of these books (which collectively make up volume 1 of the series) not only mark Shan’s long-awaited return to teen fiction but also the beginning of his first full-blown fantasy saga. An excitingly compelling change of pace from an author often billed as ‘The Master of YA Horror’.
In the opening story Archibald Lox & The Bridge between Worlds we are introduced to Archie, our intrepid young protagonist whose life has been rocked by a tragic event. On the morning we meet him Archie has decided to skip school for the day and wander around his home city of London to clear his head. He is standing on a footbridge over the River Thames taking in the familiarly iconic sights of the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye, when he sees a girl running towards the bridge with two sinister white-suited men in deadly pursuit. As the girl makes it onto the footbridge Archie notices her start pulling strange faces. Before he has time to react to her crazily contorting facial expressions, he realises that the stones at her feet are moving apart, revealing a portal beneath the surface of the bridge. The girl’s two white-suited assailants, one armed with a stiletto knife and the other with an axe, almost catch up with her but she jumps into the portal and closes it behind her. Archie is shocked and amazed by what he’s just witnessed and is equally shocked and amazed that no one else around appears to have noticed any of it. The weapon-wielding duo take their leave and Archie is free to continue his day as if nothing ever happened and live the rest of his life in uneventful bliss. But his limitlessly curious nature soon gets the better of him. As if being governed by some higher power he discovers his own way of unlocking the portal and takes a leap into the unknown.
The rest of this tale (and indeed the entire volume) follows Archie as he embarks on a multitude of enthralling adventures in the fantastically surreal parallel universe known as The Merge. The ideally suited first person narrative allows us to experience all the sights and sounds of this new world from Archie’s perspective as he encounters the bizarre terrain, fascinating people and terrifying beasts to be found around every corner. Along his way he bumps into the girl he saw on the bridge, a fearless, resilient and wise youngster named Inez. She’s about the same age as Archie and decides to help the well-meaning but hapless human boy navigate the multifaceted landscapes of the Merge.
We travel with the two main characters as they go from vibrantly colourful wonderlands to sparsely populated ghost villages where nightmarish Hell Jackals roam and beyond to majestically opulent cityscapes. Every chapter is packed with a mixture of surprise, action and suspense as they meet allies, face-off against enemies and adapt to whatever situation they find themselves in. Alongside the regular doses of high octane hijinks that flow through volume 1 like a river of adrenaline, Shan also uses Archie’s conversations with Inez to steadily reveal pieces of information about how the Merge works. This creative sleight of hand technique allows both Archie and we the readers to learn details about the world without slowing the pace of the plot. We find out about the Merge’s uniquely vast metamorphic geography and its connection to Earth, the divisive power-struggle amongst their Royal Family and much more.
This trilogy also contains some of arguably the most accomplished and imaginative world-building of Shan’s career to date. So many of the alternate universes to be found in contemporary fantasy/sci-fi are merely superficial constructions put in place to prop up weak plots or give writers a shorthand for epic. But in this case the work Shan has done to make sure his new universe’s geographical and societal foundations are solid is evident in every chapter. In its own way The Merge is as absorbing and comprehensive as Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Every aspect of life there has been precisely thought out, whether it’s the characters’ mushroom-exclusive diet or their playfully inventive vocabulary. Escapism at its sophisticated finest.
Many of the characters we are introduced to in the course of these three yarns are among the most vividly memorable Shan has ever created. In book one Archie makes the acquaintance of King Lloyd, a charmingly eccentric, other-worldly wise monarch with glass eyes and teeth who sports a pair of red fluffy slippers. Book two brings the protagonist into contact with the titular Empress of Suanpan, a fiercely maniacal dictator with the appearance and dress sense of a sweet old grandma and book three sees him discover the agilely artful ways of two Merge subcultures, The Mice and The Rats. Although volume 1 is separated into three instalments, the author’s signature blend of fast-flowing prose and slick, engaging storylines ensures that they all read with the fluency of one well-paced novel. There is certainly no shortage of Shan’s trademark cliff-hangers and there is quite literally a macabre undercurrent to these stories as a river of actual blood winds its way through the narrative. Not to mention a closing plot twist that will leave even the most deductive readers with their jaws on the carpet.
I believe that the Archibald Lox series has the potential to be the author’s best work since The Saga of Darren Shan, it has the magical, dream-like overtones of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and the captivating, world-hopping drama of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I can’t recommend it highly enough, perfect for fantasy fans of all ages.
Feel like taking a trip into The Merge? Book one, Archibald Lox & the Bridge between Worlds is available for free worldwide on Amazon.