The Boy With Two Heads

JM Newsome

Trifolium Books UK, 2012. ISBN 978-0-9568104-4-1. 364 pages.

Disclaimer: Trifolium Books UK also publish my novel, Paths of Exile. They didn't ask me to review The Boy With Two Heads, and although I heard of The Boy With Two Heads through them, I don't think that has affected my opinion.

The Boy With Two Heads is a time-slip novel for young adults, set in ancient Greece in 432 BC and modern Athens and Cumbria (northern England) in 2010. Phidias, master sculptor, architect and engineer, and his brother Panainos, master painter, are historical figures who play important roles in the historical storyline. The main character in the historical storyline, Themis, a young athlete competing in the ancient Olympic Games, is fictional, as are all the characters in the modern storyline.

In 432 BC, Themistocles (Themis), a twelve-year-old boy living in Athens, is training to compete in the boxing at the Olympic Games to be held later that year, when an accident leaves him unconscious with a serious head injury. In 2010 AD, Suzanne is a fourteen-year-old girl on a school trip to Athens, with athletic ambitions of her own. A road accident on exactly the same spot as Themis' accident 2,400 years earlier leaves Suzanne in a coma. Somehow her spirit is drawn back through time to keep Themis alive. With the 'wrong' spirit inhabiting his body, Themis has no memory of anything before his accident and has to learn about his life all over again, with occasional bewildering glimpses into 21st-century medical technology. Suzanne, unconscious most of the time, sees glimpses of Themis' life in visions. Gradually, it becomes apparent that Themis is the target of a mysterious plot against his life. Will he survive to compete at the Olympics? And will Suzanne's spirit be released back to her, or will she remain trapped in the past for ever?

As regular readers may know, I am not well attuned to time-slip novels. I almost always find that I get interested in one storyline, usually the historical one, at the expense of the other (for example, in The House on the Strand, reviewed here). Unusually, in The Boy With Two Heads I found the modern storyline as intriguing as the historical one. I read the book twice, and although I picked up some links and cross-references between the two storylines second time round, I still found myself reading it as two separate narratives. Which is not how time-slip novels are meant to be read, so bear in mind that I won't have appreciated the time-slip aspect of the novel.

The modern storyline has a powerful sense of suspense - will Suzanne make a recovery? It brilliantly captures the sudden disorienting shock of a serious accident in a city far from home, and the anxiety and fear felt by Suzanne's friends and family. The author also makes very effective use of modern communication tools such as blogs and Facebook - second nature to modern teenagers - to tell the modern story from several viewpoints, in an ingenious variation on the epistolary novel.

The historical storyline forms a larger share of the novel than the modern storyline. It is excellent on historical detail, especially as Themis has lost his memory and has to learn about his life and world all over again, so the reader gets to learn it with him. Anyone looking for a painless way to gain a detailed picture of classical Greek housing, food, clothing, travel, athletic training, religion, bronze casting, and the immensely intricate engineering and artistry that went into creating a giant statue of Zeus with ivory skin, gilded robes and glowing eyes, will love this book. Not to mention the description of the ancient Olympic Games, with the athletes' oath, the opening and closing ceremonies, the vast tent city housing the competitors, trainers, spectators and hangers-on, and the athletic competitions themselves, culminating in Themis' boxing bout.

The pace is steady, and I found less of a sense of suspense in the historical storyline than the modern one, because it was not initially clear to me that there was more at stake than Themis getting his memory back. Having lost his memory, Themis is not aware that he has qualified to compete in the Olympics, and I did not pick up on the seriousness of the plot against him until well into the novel.

Characterisation is lively, especially that of the cheerful, rotund and rather irreverent Panainos. There are some neat parallels between young people's issues and dilemmas in the two storylines - some things don't change much in 2,400 years. I have a suspicion that Ancient Greece was probably nastier than its portrayal here, but there are limits on what can reasonably be put into a young adult novel, and in any case an athlete from a prosperous family was probably more sheltered than most.

A list of characters is useful for keeping track of the cast, especially minor figures, and a glossary explains the Greek terms used in the text. Both of these are at the back, so it is worth bookmarking them for easy reference. There is a map of Athens at the front, and maps of ancient Olympia and the sailing route to it at the back, all useful for following the characters' movements. A brief Author's Note outlines some of the historical background, and there is more information on the author's blog.

Time-slip novel for young adults set at the Olympic Games in ancient Greece in 432 BC and in modern Britain.