With thanks to the publisher, Chicken House Books, and the author, Kieran Fanning, for organising a complimentary copy of this book for me in exchange for a review. Cheers, big eyes (as Ghost would probably say)!
I’ve never read a book quite like The Black Lotus before, which is a fantastic thing to be able to say of a debut novel. It’s really a story which has something to offer everyone, and which takes in so much, imaginatively, that it has a cinematic quality which adds hugely to the enjoyment of reading it. The action is fast, the dialogue is fun, the characters are great and the settings are diverse, interesting and well-imagined.
The first character we meet is the one who turned out to be my favourite – Ghost. He is a thirteen-year-old boy living in a favela in Rio de Janeiro – or, at least, a version of Rio de Janeiro which exists in a reimagined future, one in which a villainous Empire has spread across most of the world. The realities of life under this regime are skilfully expressed, particularly when Ghost speaks of the giant statue of Jesus which used to loom over the city; this gently sad reference to the Christ the Redeemer statue, immediately familiar to every reader, helps to site the story and also underline the dangerous new world we’ve entered. Ghost, we soon learn, is a boy uniquely well equipped to deal with his hardscrabble life. As well as his innate intelligence and courage, he also has a talent; given the right conditions, Ghost can become invisible. He calls this Bleaching, but he doesn’t quite know how he manages to do it. As the book opens, he is involved in a robbery, experiencing a close brush with the long arm of the law, until he encounters a mysterious man with a patch over one eye. He thinks he has shaken off this new pursuer, only to find he will not be evaded quite so easily.
We then switch to an Irish setting, meeting another teenage boy named Cormac who is on the run from bullies. In his attempt to escape, he demonstrates that he, also, possesses a superpower – one which allows him to run so fast that he can scale walls, or overtake almost anything on the flat. He, too, encounters the strange one-eyed man, who – as he’d done to Ghost, back in the favela – gives him a black flower. The final teenager is a young girl named Kate who lives on the streets of New York, alone since losing her family to the Empire. Her special ability is that of communication; she can speak to animals, and she also has a remarkable facility with human languages. As we might expect by now, Kate also encounters Makoto, the one-eyed man, who also recruits her into the Black Lotus by giving her the strange dark flower and telling her she, and her skill, will prove indispensable to their struggle.
But what is this struggle, and who is behind it?
Makoto is a member of the Black Lotus, a resistance movement which has struggled for centuries to keep the power of the Japanese Empire at bay. Its members guard the Moon Sword, an object of immense power, and have done for over five hundred years, keeping it from the clutches of anyone who would wish to use it to do harm. The youngsters learn gradually about the movement and their roles within it, training as ninjas (or ‘shinobi’), coming into contact with all manner of cool technology and equipment as they explore their new home of Renkondo, the underground HQ of the Black Lotus. All is progressing smoothly, until the Moon Sword is stolen from the heart of Renkondo and taken somewhere that nobody can follow – nobody but Ghost, Cormac and Kate, at least…
The story leaps through time, from city to city, utilising technology and equipment from sixteenth-century Japan and modern-day America, as the children race to recover the stolen sword. They each make use of their ability, but far from being a ‘get-out-of-all-situations’ card, the plot clearly shows the limitations of each teen’s power, whether it’s the toll it takes on their body or the sheer near-impossibility of what they’re trying to do. Throughout, they must rely on their friendship, learning to rebuild trust when it shakes (as it inevitably does), looking past the obvious, putting together clues and figuring out which adults are on their side and which are not, all the while keeping one step ahead of the Empire and its fearsome leaders. The showdown in New York is great, with unexpected help coming from a fantastic source, and the book finishes on a high note, with plenty of plot threads tied up perfectly – but leaving enough unanswered to whet the reader’s appetite for a sequel, all the same.
I particularly enjoyed Ghost’s verbal ‘tics’, or his tendency to misunderstand English phrases, which means he often mangles his words. I also felt he had the most interesting and emotional backstory, which was used to great effect through the book. He is naturally hilarious, and several scenes with him had me giggling aloud. I thought Kate was a strong and interesting character, though it did bother me slightly that her looks and figure are dwelt on at several junctures in the book; she is only thirteen, after all, and this sort of description, to me, feels unnecessary. As well as that, she is capable of being an anchor character without also needing to be ‘blonde and beautiful’ – the boys’ looks aren’t considered important to their roles! Cormac is a typical Irish teenager, and I enjoyed his fiery temper and courage. I also thought his special ability was wonderfully utilised and well described. The story also makes great use of incidental and more minor characters, particularly Savage, who stole my heart – but I’m not saying any more about him. You’ll have to read the book to find out why.
This is a great read from an Irish author, and one I’d recommend for anyone of perhaps 10+ looking for a fresh, unexpected and exciting adventure story which takes in multiple settings and voices, showcasing diversity and great storytelling. And if you’re still not sure, why not check out this interview with Kieran Fanning for an insight into the book, its background and the process of writing – I hope you’ll soon be as big a fan of Ghost as I am.