This book is described as being a stand alone off shoot to the Gormenghast trilogy with Mervyn Peake writing in his introduction that after suggestions he decided to put it out as a volume in its own right.
The problem is of course that unless you are familiar with the strange world of Gormenghast and the character of Titus Groan a great deal of the beginning of this story will mean very little. Titus starts off struggling to suppress his desire to rebel against the responsibilities that come with his position as the heir to the House of Groan.
As a result of his yearning for change he decides to act on his impulse and escape and head beyond the boundaries of his former existence and discover something new and encounter a world where he is no longer Titus Groan with all that comes with that surname.
He escapes while the festivities for his 14th birthday continue and after walking and stumbling through the landscape comes to a wide river he has never seen before. A boat lies by the bank with an island on the other side the tempting destination. But no sooner has he gone near the boat than the Peake imagination fires up and a pack of wild dogs joins him in the water and pushed the boat to its destination.
Once on the other side Titus collapses under the dual strain of hunger and tiredness and then when he wakes the real adventure begins.
Using a very Spartan collection of characters - a goat, hyena and a lamb – Titus is guided slowly through to a point where it becomes a question of life and death. On his way to meet the lamb he learns from overhearing the goat and the hyena that they were once men and that the lamb had the ability to pull out of them some sort of animal nature that allowed them to become the creatures that resemble animals but with some lingering human traits.
The lamb has watched all of his creations die away as he sits in the centre of an underground network of mines and the thought of fresh blood is something that forces him to slightly lose control. Lose it enough to allow Titus to sow the seeds of doubt in the goat and the hyena and then critically delaying his attack against the boy long enough to let Titus cleave his skull with a sword.
This is all made rather stranger by the positioning of this story, which ends with the dogs taking Titus back leaving two old men on the other side of the bank, as a tale suitable for children.
This is dark, not just the sense of the title but dark in its imagination. If I read this to my children there would be a lot of questions afterwards and then nightmares. This doesn't sit comfortably with the usual Famous Five stories. That is not to say it doesn't have its merit but really this doesn't quite work as a stand alone book.
This does need a background knowledge of the Gormenghast trilogy to work and certainly a child would not have that along with a fair proportion of the readership. The imagination is rich but perhaps this episode should have been squeezed into the trilogy rather than left to be scrutinised on its own merits in the way that printing it as a single volume forces you to do.