Readers accustomed to sinister or deeply entrenched mythological imaginings, or to the ambivalences of emotion and motive that by now are expected in a fantasy novel — the satirical and dystopian impulses of the “Hunger Games” series, say, or even the busier, benevolent educational ones of Rick Riordan — will be startled by the elementary storytelling and simple colors of this one. I mean simple colors in the most literal sense. On a single page, one comes upon Red Riders, the Green River, two black knights, one with a red shield and one with a white shield, and the Black Knight with a White Shield, while a page later Tiuri rides with Gray Knights along a Blue River.
Yet as the book unfolds, its charms, and its at first mysterious appeal, become more evident. There are rewards in its lack of cunning. An earnest innocence is evident on every page, with a charming note of Dutch practicality perpetually ringing out: “This bread is fresh. Leave your old bread here. I can use it to make some bread pudding,” a character remarks one morning as the hero is sent on his way. We never see the bread pudding, but we like that, despite the epic setting, it was made. Later, we are directed to the Hills of the Moon, then told that “they’re called that because they look best by moonlight.”
The message in the letter turns out, on its climactic revelation, to be somewhat, well, anticlimactic. Its news is less world-altering than narrowly dynastic, far less cosmic than one would want such hard-carried secrets to be. What’s more, Tiuri’s quest turns out to have been slightly redundant: A second messenger was wisely, if anti-dramatically, entrusted with the same message. Yet Tiuri, if not particularly well fleshed out as a character, is a receptive vessel for any child’s imagination, and his quest, exactly because it lacks refinement of purpose or any overlay of adult allegory, should have a deep appeal to an open-minded child, though perhaps a younger one than is usual for such long-winded fare. (The second volume of the series, “The Secrets of the Wild Wood,” has also been republished. It involves secrets in a wild wood.)
Tiuri goes through a lot, all of it in a spirit of quiet, purposeful innocence that is doubtless more appealing to many kids than the more psychologically convoluted heroes of more mature recent books. Those of us who like to read more richly metaphysical or satirical fantasies may be, in Dickens’s phrase, envious of the ease with which Dragt’s readers have for so long been entertained. But the virtue of simplicity is straightforwardness, and its reward is, often, undivided attention.