by Catherine Fisher
After a childhood spent taking care of his alchoholic mother, Cal finally gets a chance to leave home. He’s going to live with his uncle, a successful accountant who has offered Cal a job and a place to live. But Cal gets off the train at the wrong stop, and finds himself in the middle of nowhere, in a place called Corbenic. In Corbenic, Cal stays at a mysterious hotel called the Castle, and dines with the proprietor, a handicapped man named Bron who appears to be the Wounded King or Fisher King of the Grail legend. At the dinner, Cal sees a vision, but denies having seen it, a denial which dooms him to a path of suffering. Before Cal can find peace, he must learn to confront the pain in his life, to forgive and to seek forgiveness, and to make choices about the life he wants to lead.
Corbenic is an intense, dark, and deeply emotional book. Catherine Fisher does a remarkable job of juxtaposing the ancient with the modern in unusual ways, such as the bohemian reenactors who may or may not be the knights of King Arthur’s court. Cal is not a very likeable character, at least not at first; he seems shallow and selfish and even cruel to his mother. But as the book progresses and the layers are peeled back, you see the deep emotional scars that Cal tries to hide, and the pain that he copes with by trying to control everything in his life.
As with Fisher’s other books, the writing is highly poetic and full of symbolism. For example, in some ways, Cal is the wounded king, although his wounds are internal rather than external. In fact, the whole internal/external dichotomy is never resolved, leaving open the question of whether Corbenic is real or an internal symbol of Cal’s pain and healing. But in the long run, it doesn’t matter, and Corbenic makes the Grail legend real and relevant, and not just some dusty story about ancient knights.
Corbenic is probably too intense for most children. There’s nothing overly frightening, but there is tragedy, and the emotions, particularly in Cal’s relationship with his mother, will be disturbing to those not developmentally ready to deal with them. But the dark, emotional nature of the book will probably appeal to many teens.