Here are the occasional reflections of a joyful traveller along the strange pathways of fantasy and adventure. All my reviews are independent and unsolicited.

I started this blog intending to write only about children's fantasy ('magic fiction') but have since widened my scope to include any work of children's fiction that I have read and enjoyed. Fantasy will still probably predominate, as it remains a favourite genre, but I cannot now resist sharing thoughts on other wonderful books too. (MG and occasionally YA.)

Here you will find only recommendations, never negative reviews. If I read a book which I feel is less than wonderful (which happens far more often than not) then I simply don't write about it. This blog is, rather, a celebration of the most exciting books I stumble across on my meandering reading journey, and of the important, life-affirming experiences they offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts their writers give.

Thursday, 19 March 2020

Uki and the Outcasts by Kieran Larwood

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.

Important themes

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. 

David Wyatt

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.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

The Thief Knot by Kate Milford

Illustration: Jamie Zollars

‘“How big does a crew have to be before it needs a name?” . . .
“I think if we hit five, we start talking names.”’ (p 86)

Just one favourite?

In a world where wonderful children’s fiction flourishes and authors in many different countries are providing rich entertainment and life-enhancing experiences for young readers, it seems rather meaningless to pick out a single author as my top favourite. Yet we all have our own tastes and preferences and what thrills me most of all is truly original imagination combined with rich exploration of what it is to be a child. So, if pressed to make a choice amongst children’s (MG) writers, I would probably say that my top favourite is Kate Milford. I certainly look forward to any new book of hers with eager anticipation - and have not been disappointed yet.

After the hurly burly

She is one of a trio of quite superb US writers for young people that I tend to think of as the ‘Weird Sisters’. The others are Anne Ursu and Laura Ruby*. I hasten to add that I do not mean this description (totally my own - if you don’t count Shakespeare) to be in any way derogatory. I am sure they are all truly lovely people. The parallel with their Scottish antecedents is not intended as literal. I don’t even know if they ever make arrangements to meet again, hurly burly notwithstanding. Rather these three authors create  books that brim with devastatingly  original, startlingly weird and truly wonderful imagination - each in their own style, of course (or it wouldn’t apply would it?). They also all explore the experiences of childhood in a way that is deep and rich, without ever being heavy. Ask me on a different day, and it could well be that one of these other two come out as favourite instead. It probably depends which of their books I have read most recently. But today it is, Kate Milford, because I have just been blown away by The Thief Knot.


This new title is billed as ‘A Greenglass House Story’, Greenglass House being one of the author’s earlier and, I suspect, best selling books. Its story does not however take place in that particular building, not is it very directly connected. It does have many tangential connections though, through characters, previous events and experiences, themes and what you might call ‘back stories’. But then so do all Kate Milford’s books have such interconnections. They are sometimes blatant, sometimes more subtle, but always there. Her overall creation is a rich and complex world, related to, but not quite our own, with a history related to, but not quite our own. Within this, each of her books, usually more or less complete in itself, nevertheless adds more dimensions and greater understanding of, her uber-credible, hyper-incredible world. The whole thing, often centring around an imagined city called Nagspeake, I find an almost indescribable joy.

Mystery wrapped in enigma

The Thief Knot is itself a brilliant children’s adventure, where the ‘knot’ is a crew of somewhat disparate kids (more than five, and therefore worthy of a name) who come together to solve a kidnapping mystery. It is a story of puzzles and intrigue, or clues and cleverness, even of magic (but of the take-a-card-any-card variety, not the ‘Wingardium Leviosa’ sort). Led by young Marzana, the child of a former smuggler captain, and her lawyer husband, their exploits, entertaining amusing and exciting, draw the reader enraptured through the ever-twisting narrative.

Yet this, for me at least, is not the principal delight of the book. The whole tale develops in, and indeed because of, the most incredibly imaginative setting: one where, for example, ‘old iron’ can transform itself into different patterns and even structures; where ghosts exist alongside perfectly naturalistic characters; where in a mind blowing  glass museum, ‘radioactive tea’ is always laid for exactly the correct number of arrivals; where a highly eccentric school building is discovered to give access to a whole, apparently abandoned, underground rail system. You just have to read about this world to appreciate it. I can think of little to which the phrase ‘weird and wonderful’ better applies.

Slow but sure 

Kate Milford tells her story slowly. And that is not a bad thing, at least for someone who writes as compellingly weirdly as she does.  It means that, as a reader, you can live through every moment  of time with Marzana and the compatriots in her ‘knot’. It means that you can get to know them, to be with them, think and do and feel with them. For, in the case of Mars herself, this is more than an detecting adventure; it is more than a discovery of things she never knew about the place where she lives, or, indeed, about the family to which she belongs. It is a journey of self discovery too for a child who finds social communication an almost insurmountable challenge, I would be tempted to suggest she might be a child on the autistic spectrum, except classification would be grossly unfair to both Marzana, and to Kate Milford’s book. Marzana is who she is, and who she is is a vital part of her world, and a vital part of all of us. She is on the human spectrum.

The other thankful advantage of the slowness of Kate Milford’s storytelling it that it gives us some chance, as readers to fit together the multiple pieces of the tale. And this certainly needs time. For this story is a complex puzzle about complex people in a complex world, that is in itself a subset of a complex ‘suite’ of  separate but interrelated novels. And that whole complexity is just totally divine. It is tingling, thrilling, children’s literature paradise.

A shout out for Jamie Zollars

Once again this volume is gloriously enhanced by Jamie Zollars evocative illustrations. I love the way that, on the jacket picture, the wondrously eccentric building of Marymead School is swathed with multiple strands of mystery and intrigue. That is just how I feel it. The chapter head vignettes are a delight too. But my favourite is the stunningly detailed frontispiece of the ‘knot’ of children in the bookshop. My only regret is that many more full-page illustrations of this quality have not been included.

First time visitors to Nagspeake

For those wanting to explore the wondrous world of Kate Milford’s imaginative creation, this is probably not the best place to start. The Thief Knot is an essentially self-contained story, but it is, to my mind at least, all the more enjoyable with some knowldge of the back story, and an ability to see the muli-layered links to earlier  explorations of ‘Nagspeake’. You could start with Greenglass House itself, or the much earlier tale of its genesis in Bluecrowne, or even go back to set yourself up for deeper resonances in The Boneshaker or The Broken Lands. Whatever, don’t miss out the opportunity along the journey to go early nineteenth century seafaring in The Left Handed Fate. You have quite some literary adventure in store. 

Please Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Clarion Books)

And, finally, a heartfelt plea to the publisher. You did a great job in bringing out Bluecrowne, but we are still one vitally important Kate Milford back title missing. Her whole oeuvre is an enormous contribution to children’s literature, now and for the future. But there is still a big gap on her section of our shelves. Now that we know what a great writer she is, please can we have a hardback edition of The Kairos Mechanism to go with all the others. Her wonderful creation to date is incomplete without it. 


*Great news that the final part of Laura Ruby’s brilliant York trilogy is published soon. Once I get reading this one, it could very well be that she is my favourite after all.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

The Apprentice Witch Series by James Nicol

Cover illustrations: Daniela Terrazzini

Late to the party

I somehow missed these books as they came out, but they were discovered for me when my young granddaughter (and her mother) met the author, James Nicol, in their local library. And what a fortunate discovery it was, for the books are truly treasurable.

Young characters who are apprentice witches, wizards, and the like provide enormously fecund ground for children’s literature. The fantasy of developing magical ability resonates with many children and is, I think, part of their natural desire to feel special, to discover their own power and importance in a world where almost all of it seems to reside with adults. Yet children realise well enough that they are not there yet, and learner magicians provide points of identity at many levels. Young readers warm to these fictional role models when they make a mess of things just as much, perhaps even more so, as when they save the world. 

A classic example is Wart in T. H.White’s The Sword in the Stone. More recently, the whole concept has been made delightfully accessible to young children in Jill Murphy’s deservedly popular series about Mildred Hubble, The Worst Witch. Of course there is always the adored Harry Potter too, but my own favourite by far is Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching, in The Wee Free Men and its sequels - just brilliant, in every way. Whilst adding his very own special magic, James  Nicol’s books carry echoes of each of these illustrious predecessors. More than anything, though, they feel to me like  a most welcome, younger readers’ take on Joseph Delaney’s YA Spook’s Apprentice series. Young Arianwyn, the apprentice in question here, like the older Thomas Ward, has to learn to defend the people of her allotted domain against everything from annoying house sprites to horrendous monsters of dark magic. 

First rate entertainment  

James Bicol really does press all the right buttons for effective junior fantasy of his chosen type. Whilst revelling in many of the tropes and conventions of this genre, so beloved of this audience, there is much in these books that is both original and imaginative too. The world-building is colourful and engaging, a small-town setting that is almost contemporary, but with a sufficient smattering of old technology to give it a period charm. Into this setting the acceptance of magic and the coexistence of a whole host of spooks and spirits fit easily,even if not, in the latter case, comfortably.

His characters are beautifully drawn and tremendously likeable (apart, of course, from those that are truly hateful); his young protagonists are sensitively conjured and the adults, although more cartoon-like, are convincing in context, and frequently highly entertaining. Although we first meet Arianwyn when passing out of the school stage of her training, the author manages to incorporate some of the friendship and rivalry elements found in many school stories, and this makes his narrative all the more accessible. There is much in this, and in his protagonist’s lack of self-confidence, as she struggles to grow into both her new position and her own abilities, with which it will be easy for his young readers to identify. 

His easy flow of storytelling is compulsive. It is by turns intriguing, touching and amusing, and builds towards its thrilling climax compellingly. It leads too, of course, to a heart-warming resolution that is just right for its audience. There is absolutely every reason to think that Arianwyn Gribble will become a much-loved treasure, just as Mildred Hubble has already become for so many. 

Read before you watch

I don’t often do if-you-loved-this-you’ll-love-that recommendations. Reading taste is harder to predict that some think, and sometimes the comparisons you see made are ludicrous anyway. However this one really should hold. The apprenticeship of Arianwyn Gribble could well be be just about perfect for readers who enjoyed Michelle Harrison’s equally delightful Widdershins sisters (A Pinch of Magic, A Sprinkle of Sorcery), or, of course, vice versa. 

For any coming new to The Apprentice Witch, there is the bonus of two splendid sequels already in waiting. A Witch Alone and A Witch Comes True extend and develop Arianwyn’s story in a completely magical way. And for those who have already started to follow her gripping adventures . . . well . . . what are you waiting for? That the stories are soon to be made into a TV series comes as little surprise,  but get in there first and snuggle into the books themselves. They will comfort like a warm blanket, and bring just as much happiness.

Finally a word of praise for Daniella Terrazzini’s cover illustrations for the UK paperbacks. I love the way they provide strong images of Arianwyn, without defining her ethnicity.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

Invisible in a Bright Light by Sally Gardner

Cover: Helen Crawford-White

‘Time turns on a wave; the tide changes; the clock resets.’ (p 322)

(Un) Usually strange

This book is an intriguingly strange mixture of genres, but then it was written by Sally Gardner, who has been writing books that are an intriguingly strange mixture of genres even since her triumphant debut into children’s fiction with the wonderful I, Coriander, in 2015. Since then she has proved herself one of our most imaginative and engaging authors in a string of excellent titles. All are well worth seeking out by bookish young readers, who will be enthralled on many different levels. Often her books mix history and magic in a way that purist historians  may disapprove, but open-minded children will relish at the same time as they learn much. They are magical realism of a kind, I suppose, but very much of their own kind. I doubt few children will actually confuse their elements of fantasy with past reality. One of my absolute favourites of her books, though, Maggot Moon, is slightly different in its genre, being one of the most effective (and moving)  dystopian adventures that I know for younger readers.

Wrapped in mystery

Invisible in a Bright Light is every bit as much of an enigma as its title suggests. Insofar as it is a story about children who live in and around a nineteenth century opera house, it could be a tale from the pen of Eva Ibbotson in her more romantic vein (as opposed to her comic one), or even that of Noel Streatfeild. It has an inhibited girl who discovers a great talent, a diva mother, cruelly jealous of her own daughter’s flowering artistry, an admired little dancer, a kind-hearted boy who helps create scenery, and an avuncular, if rather enigmatic clown - all very endearing, with no lack of emotional tug. It could be such a tale, that is, if it did not exist within the framework of a horrifying  life-and-death game run by a disquieting undersea guardian of hook-suspended, seemingly-drowned corpses. It is nightmare stuff that could almost come from the likes of Stephen King. 

In the juxtaposition of these two disparate elements abide many mysteries. There is a huge galleon-shaped chandelier that crashes disastrously without obvious cause; there is a ship at sea found inexplicably bereft of any human life (it is not without significance, perhaps, that two of its principle young characters are called Maria and Celeste); there are unfolding memories of a part life different from the one being lived, and objects that prompt those recollections; a miraculous ability for a young girl to radiate intense light. Woven through everything are pervading issues of both reality and identity. Is the action of the story dream or reality, present or past, life or game? Or perhaps it is just a play acted out for a toy theatre? Is Celeste really Maria, or was she in the past? Can she ever find herself, or her lost family? The intrigue of it all pulls the reader irresistibly through a truly enchanting, if sometimes chilly, narrative.

Truth in fantasy

I love children’s authors who feed the imagination of readers with their own rich imaginings, and Sally Gardner is one such. Despite her darknesses, in the end she promulgates wholesome values; she is a writer with heart. Many children, now and in the future, will find in her writing the same courage and hope that she conjures in her character, Celeste. 

‘You shone so bright with the truth, with the ferociousness of love, no monster could face that and live.’  (p 326)

Saturday, 7 December 2019

My Books of the Year 2019

The best of the best

Here are the titles that made the most outstanding impression on me in 2019. They confirm, yet again, the breathtaking quality of literature currently available for readers between about 9 and14.

First class sequels

This year has seen the arrival of a number of follow-ups to books that I hugely enjoyed. To be honest, sequels can sometimes be a bit of a let down, especially when they have been eagerly awaited, but not so any of these. Every jot of anticipation was delightfully fulfilled, and even exceeded.

Piers Torday is developing as a very special link between children’s classics and the best of contemporary writing. Together with others such as Michael Morpurgo and Cressida Cowell, he does much of enormous value to promote children’s reading, both within and beyond his books. He would, in fact, be my nomination for the next Children’s Laureate. His homage to C.S.Lewis, The Lost Magician (review Aug ‘18), was far more than mere pastiche, a fine work of fantasy in its own right. Now its sequel, The Frozen Sea, lives up to that auspicious start quite wonderfully. It is magical, in every sense, and a book-lovers delight.

The Train to Impossible Places by P.G.Bell (review Nov ‘18) was one of the best examples of children’s entertainment reading that I have come across in a long time. Its sequel, The Great Brian Robbery is no less so. It has just about everything: humour, excitement, wild imagination, delightful characters - and trains. It is a real portmanteau of everything children will love in a zany, escapist fantasy.

Catherine Doyle’s The Storm Keeper’s Island (review July ‘18) is a children’s fantasy that stands in a line of  succession stretching back to the likes of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper - and it is a totally worthy successor to those illustrious predecessors. The recent sequel, The Lost Tide Warriors retains, and indeed exceeds, all the same wondrous qualities. It has  a rootedness in place and the grounding resonances of traditional story and myth, whilst still adding new layers of wonderfully fecund imagination. This is a developing sequence of exceptional quality.

I found The Shadow Cipher, the first volume in Laura Ruby’s York sequence (review Jan ‘18) to be an astonishing delight in so many ways.This quirky mystery adventure is a totally intriguing read, brought alive by a quite devastatingly entertaining, and diverse, cast of characters, not least its young protagonists. The sequel, York: The Clockwork Ghost  now continues and extends the saga with huge originality and breathtaking writerly skill. UK readers should not be put off by the US cultural context of this series; its pervasive humanity and its compelling narrative involvement are universal.

Stand out stand-alones

Much as I love sequels, sequences and sets, my most outstanding reads of all this year happen to have been stand-alone stories. They are also, in their various ways, very challenging books. None of them are easy reads:  some are difficult to handle emotionally; some involve  difficult themes and ideas; some are difficult structurally; and some are all of these. They are, in fact, superb examples of when children’s books become children’s literature. It is, of course, important for young readers to have access to books that provide amusement, entertainment and diversion. It is equally important, though, that they experience books which take them further; books which can help them grow as people and as citizens of the world; books which can perhaps encourage and support them in making that world a better place.

Donna Harraway, in her introduction to the brilliant The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction by Ursula K Le Guin (published by Ignota, 2019) says: ‘Storytelling might well be fundamental to organising and promoting cooperation in human evolution.’ 

These books contain storytelling of exactly that mind-expanding, life-enhancing, humanity-evolving kind. It is no good expecting them to be easy.

Christopher Edge has recently written a number of brilliant children’s books using engaging story to explore some of the most difficult concepts of recent physics. Now with The Longest Night of Charlie Noon (review May ‘19) he has produced a gripping, puzzling, surprising novel which approaches metaphysics in its exploration of time itself. It is a book for those who want children to think big thoughts, and live big lives. It says to us all: You can’t stop what’s coming, but you can help to shape it into something better. . . . The actions you take will change the world.’  (p 170/171)

Chloe Daykin is an author who tells wonderful, and important stories, often making accessible to young readers sophisticated narrative forms more usually associated with adult fiction. In doing so she offers up to them early glimpses of the rich possibilities that fiction has to offer.  Fire Girl, Forest Boy (review July ‘19) introduces a version of magical realism as a way of exploring  both environmental and character issues. It is a book that expands experience and engenders empathy, yet it succeeds in being an engrossing adventure at the same time. Her writing is a joy. Her rich gifts to children are invaluable, and given without any hint of patronising. 

Rarely have I encountered a children’s book that deals so sensitively with illness and loss of a much-loved sibling as Karen Foxlee’s Lenny’s Book of Everything (review March ‘19). One of Australia’s leading contemporary children’s authors, she had written other outstanding books too. This one actually came out in Australia last year, but since it was only published here (in paperback) this year, I feel justified in including it. Its very moving story involves a young girl living alongside a brother with the unusual condition of gigantism. However the book’s profound understanding and acceptance easily translate into sensitivity towards all who are unavoidably different. It, therefore, has much to say to all children. It is harrowing, but equally charming, amusing and beautiful - and not to be missed. 

Anne Ursu is one of my favourite US children’s authors, and, I think, one of the greatest, Her book The Lost Girl (review March ‘19) introduces twin girl characters, almost identical in looks but very different in who they are, in a story that encompasses both the real and the fantastic. It explores in depth questions of identity, of truth and illusion, of individuality and of group solidarity. It is a deeply feminist book, but it is far more too.  It is not a comfortable book. It is one to read and then return to. It is full of enigmatic images. Its story, like life, holds some of its secrets close, to be pondered, to be teased at, even to worm their way into a reader’s dreams. This is a novel that is both riveting and revelatory, from a writer of breathtaking skill and imagination.

Nicole Melleby’s Hurricane Season (review June ‘19) treats bravely with two subjects that have too long been taboo in children’s fiction, mental illness and same-sex relationships. It deals with them openly and honestly, yet it also deals with them with great sensitivity, in a way that to me seems totally appropriate for young readers. It also explores the life and experience of a child thrust into the role of carer, a situation that some readers will know well, and others need to understand better. Those who have experienced something similar to the life this author so touchingly evokes will find comfort and hope in seeing themselves here. Those who don’t will learn much. It is a story brim full of life, music, art, love, sadness, beauty - and humanity.

Although Frances Hardinge began her rightly acclaimed writing career with delightfully quirky fantasies, she has more recently turned to deep, dark fiction with a quasi-historical setting. Now she returns to fantasy with Deeplight (review Dec ‘19). However, here she conjures a world from her wildly idiosyncratic imagination with much of the same depth and complexity as in its award-winning predecessors.  This is a novel of rich ideas and multiple themes. It challenges and confronts, as well as entertaining magnificently. More than anything, though, it is a story about the power and potential of stories: stories true and untrue; stories invented and inherited; stories believed and doubted; stories that save and stories that kill. It says that stories are what we are, and make us what we are. And it is not wrong. 

My Book of the Year

In previous years, I have not singled out an overall favourite, but this time one novel made such an outstanding impression on me that it begs for this title.

Cover: David Litchfield

Last summer, I read right through all the principal novels of David Almond in writing order, and I have to say it was one of my finest reading experiences ever. There is so much more to this author that Skellig, remarkable  book though it is, and in my view he ranks with the likes of Alan Garner and Ursula Le Guin as the truly great writers of (children’s) fiction in English. His latest novel The Colour of the Sun (review Aug ‘19) is the quintessence of his writing, with a theme he returns to often, that of the relationship between identity and place. This short novel’s superficially simple writing belies layers of richly resonant imagery and meaning. It explores a lifetime of experience and growth through one day’s there-and-back-again ramble. It is quite simply a masterpiece.

And now . . . My Publisher of the Year

I have never before nominated a Publisher of the Year, but feel the need to do so now. Children’s titles created by BAME writers and books with lead BAME characters are becoming just slightly more in evidence - but still far too slowly. What Knights Of are so strongly contributing in this is therefore warmly to be welcomed and should be supported with conviction. Their work to place into the mainstream of UK children’s publishing outstanding  writers like Jason Reynolds (see my review of Ghost, June ‘18) and popular adventures like The High Rise Mystery by Sharna Jackson (review April ‘19) is a wonderful thing. These fine books are of inestimable importance both for children who are of BAM ethnicity and for those who aren’t. They provide high quality reading experience with vital implicit messages about the value of all individuals within our wonderful, diverse society and need proudly to be present on classroom shelves in every school in the country. We who are passionate about children’s reading should shout out, at every opportunity, for Knights Of, and for all writers and publishers who are providing children with positive images of diversity and inclusion.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Deeplight by Frances Hardinge

Illustrations: Aitch

‘Stories were ruthless creatures, and sometimes fattened themselves on bloody happenings.’ (p 8)

From fantasy to history (of sorts) . . .

Frances Hardinge describes her own books as ‘odd’, and it is hard to disagree with this. However they are odd in a good way, a very special way. Her oddness is that of a striking fecundity of imagination, often devastatingly original. Her early books were an absolute joy of fantasy invention, and her first, Fly by Night, remains one of the true treasures of speculative fiction for young readers. She followed this with several other fantasy gems, but more lately her novels have left the realms of ‘high’ fantasy, and delved more into history, although with significant elements of what could be supernatural thrown in. Her stories have also grow darker with time, and their orientation towards, perhaps, slightly older readers. They  have culminated in what I consider two masterpieces of contemporary literature, The Lie Tree (the recent hardback re-issue, wonderfully illustrated by Chris Riddell, is well worth looking out for), and A Skinful of Shadows (see my review, posted Oct. ‘17), which was one of my Books of the Year in 2017.

. . . and back to fantasy

Now her most recent novel, Deeplight, returns to a context of pure fantasy, and does so with all the panache, all the wild, idiosyncratic imagination of her early forays into this genre. The naming of things, characters, places, and perhaps, especially, gods, has always been one of her many delights; no less so here, where the defunct sea-monster gods that inhabited a stratum of breathable water below (!) the bottom of the conventional ocean, are a triumph of both evocative nomenclature and highlights of highly original world/myth building. Diving and scavenging for ‘godware’, remnants of these defunct deities, has become a major activity for the entrepreneurs of Myriad, the multi-island geography she conjures, be they the impoverished child equivalents of Thames mudlarks, or the viciously completing gangs of submarine pirates.

Deeps with depth

As might be expected from Frances Hardinge, she conjures yet another new world of fascinating and highly entertaining, not to say astonishing, oddness. And yet this latest novel of hers is not altogether a return to the style or feel of her earliest book. Rather it retains a great deal of the darkness, complexity and thought-provoking disruption of ‘normality’ that were dominant characteristics of her more recent literary triumphs. This story is deep and disturbing in more than its oceanography. It has more layers than its physics-defying waters. It is a book with many themes, and plumbs ideas associated with our creation of and need for ‘superstitious’ religion, with priesthoods, with cults and with science. It equally treats of phobias; of true and false friendship and how they arise, and are destroyed; of belonging and dislocation; of roots and nationalism; of the ties of family, actual and developed. It is as rich in though-provoking themes as it is in vivid, quirky imagination. Although not as rib-tickling as, say, Fly By Night, it is not without touches of wry sharpness either. For example it is drily said of the former sea-creature gods: ‘What’s the point of a god you can pickle?’ (p 243)

Signs of empathy

There is something further, too, that makes this book particularly special. Its fictional surmise is that the amount of extremely deep diving that many inhabitants undertake causes profound hearing loss. This means that a number of its characters are deaf, including a young girl protagonist. The book therefore explores communication through both sign language and lip-reading, together with some of their inherent difficulties, not as an ‘issue’, rather as a given and ‘normal’ aspect of life. That deaf characters are included and accepted in this way will both provide a rare point of identification for children with similar characteristics and allow hearing children valuable insights. It is a story that carries important messages about empathy, diversity and inclusion.

Story story

And one of the most remarkable things of all about Deeplight is that, at the same time as being a profound novel of ideas, it also succeeds in being a totally engrossing and exciting story, a thrilling rollercoaster of a read. Don’t miss it. This one too is headed straight for inclusion in my Books of the Year.

‘Stories, stories. He had always been a storyteller of sorts . . . Now other people’s stories were the treasures he prized. He was a storykeeper for gods and heroes. . . You could keep people alive forever through stories.’ (p 434)

Thursday, 14 November 2019

The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper in new editions introduced by Robert Macfarlane

New cover illustrations by Joe McLaren

Stunning new editions 

I am just thrilled to see these beautiful new editions of Susan Cooper’s deserved classic, the Dark is Rising sequence, released by Puffin. They should bring a whole new readership to these wonderful books - and our children’s reading experience (and very possibly their lives) will be hugely the richer as a result. 


The first of the set, Over Sea, Under Stone, was written well before the others, and its earlier genesis does show, although it is still an important development in children’s literature, and well worth reading. It provides a valuable prelude to what follows.

The dark days of Midwinter

Susan Cooper really hit her stride, however, with the book that now gives its title to the whole series,  The Dark is Rising. This is one of the very greatest works of children’s fantasy fiction, and a very fine piece of literature at any level. With its narrative spanning just a short period of days from Midwinter’s  Eve to Twelfth Night, it is perhaps the apotheosis of a child’s stand against the forces of the ‘Dark’. It also draws on the resonances of British landscape and folk myth more sensitively and yet more powerfully than almost any book I know.

. . . and beyond 

The series subsequently develops into a quite devastatingly memorable fantasy sequence. Overall, it is truly a story for all time, which very much deserves a presence in our own.

New contributions from two other greats

There are also two very particular reasons for seeking out these new editions. Firstly, the sequence is introduced, at the start of each book, by Robert Macfarlane, a brilliant writer, who is fast becoming the Merlin/Gandalf (Merriman?) for our contemporary world. He conveys his love of, and admiration for, these books most tellingly, and his illuminating introduction is unmissable for any aficionado of children’s literature, as well as for more general readers. No less an attraction are Joe McLaren’s striking new cover illustrations which brilliantly capture the distinct character and energy of each book, whilst still subtly tying them together as a set. Both new additions bring these titles vibrantly into our own time, and a wonderful thing that is.

For now . . . and the future

The Dark is Rising sequence needs to be discovered by as many new young readers as possible, not to mention any older ones who have not yet read these stunning books. They are not one jot less accessible, powerfully thrilling or rewarding than when they first came out fifty or so years ago. I hope these reissues will also prompt revisits from many old friends too, for these are books which amply reward multiple re-readings.

Robert Macfarlane reminds us in his introduction that, ‘The dark is always rising, and the work of the greatest stories is to hold it back.’  Few books succeed better in this than these from Susan Cooper. Long, long may they continue to help hold back the dark.