Cover: Fernando López Juárez Illustrations: David Wyatt
‘We’ve all lost, or escaped, or been cast out by our real families. But we have each other. We take care of each other and worry about each other and protect each other. . . That’s what makes a family. Trust and love.’ (p 370)
What I know to be wonderful
After finally reading a much anticipated new title from a favourite author (see previous post) I find it can be difficult to find the next special thing. So it has been this time. For several weeks recently I have thrashed about trying to read new children’s titles without finding any that really hit the spot for me. So I have ended up returning to another old favourite author, Kieran Larwood and his Five Realms. Actually ‘old’ is not strictly accurate, here, since the first in the series, award-winning The Legend of Podkin One-Ear, has only been around since 2016. What I suppose I mean is that I caught up with the latest title in a series that I have so far enjoyed enormously.
High fantasy rabbit style
I know of no other recent writer who has brought high fantasy so convincingly or so accessibly to a children’s readership as has Kieran Larwood. And how has he achieved this so successfully and so excitingly? He has done it by keeping many of the classic conventions of the ‘sword and sorcery’ genre (although moderating its violence appropriately) but replacing its human characters with rabbits. Make no mistake though, this world is nowhere close to Beatrix Potter or Jill Barker. This author very rapidly establishes his rabbits as totally credible characters in a totally credible, and engaging fantasy world. Nor either, though, is Kieran Larwood a successor to Richard Adams, whose rabbits, whilst endowed with anthropomorphic language and emotions, retain many of the instincts and behaviours of their lapine nature. If anything the Five Realms titles are closer to inheriting the mantle of the hugely entertaining series of Redwall books, written by Brian Jacques between 1986 and 2011. In just the same way as Kieran Larwood’s rabbits walk and talk and wear human-type clothing, including, many of them, armour and weapons, so they take on the qualities and characteristics of high fantasy heroes, villains, bards, guards, and all the other types of humanity that typically inhabit high fantasy. So typically of this genre, they are convincingly to be found travelling the various lands of a hand drawn map that stretches from icy, saw-toothed mountains, past dark forest, mist marshes, and barren plains, down to the endless sea.
Having made the comparison, though, it needs to be said that Kieran Larwood’s stories are in many ways both subtler and deeper that those of Brian Jacques’ rumbustious, epicurean and often belligerent rodents. He is the finer writer too, both in his command of language and in his manipulation of narrative structure. His central stories are framed by narration from a bard, and even though his mythology is invented, he is able to capture something of the language and ethos of oral storytelling, and make his culture of legends and magic feel authentic, at least for the time the reader is immersed in his world. And immersive it certainly is, engaging and exciting. Just immensely enjoyable reading.
Now a second trilogy begins
Having essentially completed the story of Podkin-One-Ear, at least for the moment, over the first three books, in this latest instalment Kieran Larwood seems to be starting a new trilogy, within his overall ‘Five Realms’ series. Although linked by the framing narration, we are now introduced to a new set of heroes and a new quest. And a fascinating and engaging trio they are too. Their story immediately grabs attention when protagonist, young Uki, starts the tale newly dead and buried. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler, though, to reveal that he doesn’t remain that way for long, and that his ‘ resurrection’ soon lands him with a magic quest, as well as some equally remarkable new powers. He is rapidly joined by two equally endearing companions. One is the apparently self-confident reformed poisoner, Jodi, with a potential superpower of her own, albeit used at devastating cost. The other is the even younger and tinier jereboa-riding Kree. Their adventure is an immediately engrossing one, and its structure as a story orally told by the bard to his apprentice provides the actual author with opportunity to create dramatic cliffhangers, whilst he temporarily leaves off Uki’s take to developing the events of his framing narrative. This he cleverly weaves in, with the two levels of storytelling actually beginning to draw together in intriguing ways. It is all quite brilliantly done.
What makes these books, including this latest, even more special is that there is actually a good deal more to them than just entertaining adventures. The author has considerable sensitivity and beneath the surface of high fantasy subtly introduces and develops several themes important to his young readers and their own world. ‘Magpie’ Uki has a outward appearance that is odd in terms of his own rabbit society. He is half white and half dark, his body fur literally divided down the middle, which makes him a scorned and rejected outcast. His two companions too are each outcasts in different ways, and all have to learn to respect and value themselves in the face of rejection by others. Friendship and loyalty play a strong part in the story’s development, and, although the situation in which they find themselves is one of developing war, their quest, and with it the underlying moral stance of the book, is about stopping war, not winning it.
For me, and, I suspect, for very many readers, David Wyatt’s superbly evocative interior illustrations have become an essential element of this series. The latest volume is no exception. His skilfully detailed greyscale images, succeed, in their own medium, in echoing the remarkable achievement of the text. That is, they populate a high fantasy world with rabbits with a convincing conviction that make suspension of disbelief remarkably easy. He avoids any hint of tweeness or sentimentality and makes Kieran Larwood’s rabbit characters come as alive as if they were human, sometimes evoking real empathy, at others quite terrifying. His is a prodigious talent, and both author and readers should be enormously grateful for his contribution.
To be continued
Perhaps it is to be expected that this whole new book ends with a cliffhanger too. But whilst this is temporarily frustrating, it is overall a good thing. It means there is more to come in the story of Uki, just as there was with that of Podkin. I wonder, if, in fact, the two may end up being more closely related that as yet appears. The Five Realms series is a wonderful achievement by Kieran Larwood and a fine gift to young readers. Nine to twelve year olds who currently have time on their hands could do far worse than to spend some of it in this rabbity world - and perhaps some older readers too.