Intense! Severely bullied at his old school, Michael's transferred to a new school, where he's shared his main escape with his only friend, Francis -- an imaginary world called Evgard. When Michael believes Francis has been deceiving him and using his confidences to mock him to other kids, he makes a counter-betrayal in turn -- one that's especially dangerous for Francis.
This brilliantly evoked Michael's state of mind, the paranoia and mistrust and the denial of damage, making himself not feel anything so he couldn't feel humiliation or pain. And it's not heroic, it's bitter. Michael sees a kid being bullied and thinks the best he can do is turn away so the kid doesn't have a witness (so Michael doesn't have to be reminded), and Francis steps in, unafraid, and Michael thinks it's just because he doesn't know what he has to be afraid of. The survival tactics of silence and pride. The inarticulateness -- you can't speak when you push all of yourself down. The unconscious homophobia, too -- even when Francis points it out, Michael doesn't get it, he's self-centered with the self-centeredness of the suffering, he can't see most of the suffering he inflicts. Michael is not really a nice guy, even though he doesn't intend most of the damage he does.
And the fantasy world of Evgard reflects the main action, sometimes subtly and sometimes directly, but never in a clunky way. Those chapters in themselves make a really good fantasy/historical novel in the vein of Rosemary Sutcliff. I had expected to like them best when I started, I love shared fantasy worlds in novels, but in fact I was slightly more interested in them as reflections of the main narrative than I was in them as narrative in itself--but only slightly. (The mixture of Michael and Francis -- the unconscious privilege and the real kindness that shape both Francis and Columen are brilliantly done, and what the whole story implies about what Francis and Michael notice consciously or unconsciously about each other, wow.)
A lot of reviewers mentioned that Michael's inability to ask or say the obvious things was implausible, and that his endless angst got on their nerves. For most of the book, I disagreed -- I mean, yes, it wore on me a little, but it felt like a very real (very familiar) mindset, where you can't see an out and you end up just burying yourself in it, when you get self-destructive just because you are so used to people trying to destroy you. Then about three-quarters of the way through, there was a conversation where -- well, for once I felt like the natural thing for Michael to do would be to shout out what he meant, instead of stammering and avoiding it; I could really feel the plot contrivance there. But it doesn't destroy the emotional power and the thoughtfulness of the book.
This seems to have done well in the UK, but sunk like a stone in the US -- no paperback edition, no publication of the author's later books. I am going to have to try to scarf up the rest of Collins' books used, or see if UK bookstores will sell me ebooks.
(This was one of the two books GR Recommendations suggested that I hadn't already read or already decided to read or already decided not to read; in fact, I don't think I'd heard of the book before. Well done, GR Recommendations!)