The Iron Ring is a short fantasy novel written by noted children's author Lloyd Alexander. Though is aimed primarily toward older kids, anyone with a love for mythic legends (especially Arthurian tales) will enjoy this book.
The Iron Ring is set in ancient India, and the main character is Tamar, a brave but naive young king who rules a small kingdom called Sundari. Tamar, a member of the warrior caste, is extremely concerned about obeying the principles of his caste's dharma, and it is the conflict between his idealism and the realities of the world around him that drives much of the plot.
The trouble for Tamar and his people begins when a powerful, arrogant king named Jaya comes to the palace in the middle of the night, demanding food and shelter for his entourage. Jaya then tricks the lad into playing a fateful game of dice in which Tamar loses his kingdom and his freedom. Jaya puts an iron ring on the lad's finger to symbolize his bondage, and Tamar faints. When he comes to Jaya has vanished, and in fact no one but Tamar has any recollection of his visit. His advisors and generals tell Tamar it was all just a bad dream -- except that he awakened with the iron ring still on his finger.
Tamar decides that he must take the long journey to seek out Jaya and confront him. As his quest progresses, he travels through an enchanted forest populated by magical creatures and talking animals, becomes embroiled in a savage war to prevent a ruthless tyrant from conquering all of India, falls in love, and learns what it means to be a truly honorable king and warrior. In the end, he confronts Jaya and discovers the real reason the sorcerer started him on his quest.
This book presents the reader with over thirty characters, which may be confusing to some children (especially if someone is reading the book to them). Fortunately, Alexander has thoughtfully provided a descriptive list of people and places at the front of the book. Most characters, human and animal, are well-rounded and engaging, although Garuda (a fretful eagle) seems a caricature more fit for a Disney cartoon. And while the story is about Tamar, the strongest character here is his beloved Mirri, a feisty milkmaid who often saves the day with her wits.
There is a fair amount of violence in the sections of the book that deal with war, but it is never glorified and Tamar never kills anyone. And, really, given what's on prime time TV these days, only very young children would be troubled by the more violent events in this book. Alexander also deals skillfully with the issues raised by the Indian caste system.
If you know a young person who's been devouring tales of knights and chivalry, this would make a good gift for him or her.