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. I want this blog to be a celebration of some of the truly great books authors are currently writing for our children and of the important, life-affirming experiences these offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts these writers give.

I was, recently, graciously awarded an MBE. It pleased me, not so much for myself, but as an affirmation of my career-long efforts to promote children's reading and the high quality literature which supports it.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Mirror Magic by Claire Fayers


Illustrated Becka Moor


Here is another recent and very welcome book that I think many children will enjoy enormously. It will entertain, amuse and intrigue them as well as exciting their imaginations, all of which are wonderful things. We very much need books like this that both get and keep children reading for pleasure. 

Magical

The story's nominal Victorian setting is not completely convincing, historically speaking, but it does not need to be for this is  pure, whimsical fantasy, rather than a tale authentically rooted in particular time or place. Nor does it even matter that the rationale for its two mirror-linked worlds, one human and one of 'Fair (fairy) Folk', is not particularly logical. We are, here, well into 'willing suspension of disbelief' territory. However, the book does fully deserve to be called 'magic fantasy' and that is a big plus for me.  At a time when so much  of the most popular children's reading centres on humour, often from big name and 'celebrity' authors, magic and adventure provide a much needed balance. We know many children revel in silly humour, and there is nothing wrong in that,  but it is good for them to sometimes have food for  their wilder imagination too. In Claire Fayers story,  the possibility of magic, and even magical people, leaking from another world into ours, is  the very stuff of children's fantasy - and sometimes children need to discover the magic in themselves, defeat evil and save the world, albeit vicariously and from the safety of a book. 

Colourful

Where Mirror Magic scores highly is in the  quality of its writing, the originality and liveliness of its invention and the cleverness of its plot building. These attributes lift it well above the level of many of the offerings currently piled high on the tables of high street stores. 

Although if its cast of characters is relatively standard - likeable children pitted against somewhat grotesque caricatures of villains - the inhabitants of its two worlds are drawn with admirable colourfulness. The tale  is enlivened, too, by the addition of a wonderful 'talking' book. Very much a character in its own right, and with, it has to be said, considerable 'attitude', the book initially provides a header for each chapter but later becomes more directly involved in the story itself. Its often sarcastic, dry humour, not to mention its arrogant self-importance, makes it a gem of invention. Its recurrent intrusion adds a great deal of amusing entertainment to the tale, as well engendering tingling trepidation through predictions that are dolefully doom-laden. 

The author's use of language is always skilfully controlled in service of the narrative. It is unpretentious in ways that render it readily accessible to its young audience, whilst still vividly communicating character, setting and action. Particularly notable is the strong evocation of sensory experience, particularly that of an olfactory nature. This story smells of magic in a way that greatly enhances its imaginative hold. 

Engaging

Above everything, Mirror Magic is a well told story. Compelling questions keep the pages turning: Why does everyone think, Lord Skinner, the powerful town patriarch, is such a 'fine gentleman'? What strange magical connection exists between protagonist Ava and her 'fairy' friend Howell? Why have so many magical mirrors, the doorways between the two worlds, ceased to work? These and more intrigues keep the narrative working powerfully as a mystery. But there is excitement and adventure aplenty too, as well as many laughs and a good few scares and surprises. It may not be a book offering high literary experiences, or deeply meaningful insights, but it is is a rattling good children's read, celebrating admirable qualities of resourcefulness, resilience and loyal friendship - and with more than a little magic. 




Sunday, 24 June 2018

First Light: A Celebration of Alan Garner edited by Erica Wagner



Wizards

Sometimes my reading thread takes me a little 'off piste'. But these days I try to go-with-the-flow and I have been such a lifelong aficionado of Alan Garner that this book was a must-read as soon as I discovered it. In many ways, then, this post doesn't really fit under my 'Magic Fiction Since Potter' banner.  The book in question is indeed a recent publication, but it is not in itself fiction. The writer it celebrates is, thankfully, still alive and writing, but that part of his work which could be called magic fiction for children substantially predates Potter, whereas his more recent fantasies are not really for young readers. Yet his impact is so significant across the entire gamut of contemporary children's fantasy, and this new book about him has been such a revelatory element of my recent reading, that I can't resist including it.

There are, in my view, three great English wizards of 'magical' fiction; three who are the supreme myth-takers and myth-makers.* First there was JRR Tolkien, who essentially defined magic fantasy in his seminal The Lord of the Rings. Most recently we have Philip Pullman, whose His Dark Materials takes this genre into new dimensions in far more than the fictional sense, and who now seems to be successfully extending his masterpiece into The Book of Dust. Howeverbetween the two comes Alan Garner. He is certainly the equal of these others, perhaps even the greatest of the three, certainly in terms of development over a lifetime's writing. 

Here and now

Alan Garner's is quintessentially the magic of place, of landscape, of the earth, which is to say the Old Magic. His spells, like those of Robert Macfarlane's in The Lost Words (written with Jackie Morris)are the conjuring of names. School has taught too many people that history is about the 'olden times'. But history is not  layers of 'then', it is layers of 'now'. Places are built on people and events, yet, whilst they belong to a particular 'here', they can seem not to belong to our own present. Alan Garner finds in the landscape objects, 'beauty things'**, that carry those 'heres' into our 'now'. He takes myths from the depth our collective heritage, he resurrects them from their sleeping place under our landscape, and makes them into myths for now, for us. This is his most consistent theme. It can be found in his early children's books, and continues through all his work. 

Celebrants

First Light (published just a couple of years ago, under the remarkable new Unbound imprint) is a collection of tributes to Alan Garner from a quite fabulous array of writers. Most are short pieces. Many of them are illuminating, many inspiring. Some are reflective, some analytical, and some more oblique in their homage. All are from people whose lives have been touched by this author, many quite profoundly. Collectively they constitute a wonderful kaleidoscope of tributes. They make  you want to rush immediately back to Alan Garner and, however well you already know his work, discover him anew. For me the most affecting contribution of all is from children's fantasy author and Fairy Tale expert,  Katherine Langrish. Her piece in this book set me off exploring her own writing too, of which more soon. But for the many moment I must try to keep focus. 

Growing old together 

Alan Garner has continually developed as an author through a lifetime of writing, not producing a vast output, but delivering a deeply considered book every now and then. His writing becomes increasingly challenging, deeper, more multi-layered and often darker, bleaker - although generally with a degree of hope, of redemption, at its close. Each successive novel is the work of an older , more mature writer. This makes him an author who it is possible to to grow with and through, over the course of a reader's own lifetime. Not that he has to be read in this way. But it is possible.***

The remarkable and ground-breaking early books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath, are essentially children's magical adventures, although far more depth and resonance is there to be found by older readers. The stunning urban fantasy Elidor remains fully accessible to young people, but is already much darker, disquieting, and starts to feel like book for somewhat older readers. The Owl Service, elliptical, intense and enigmatic, is very much a book about (and for?) those on the cusp of adulthood, as is the highly challenging read, Red Shift. 

The truly superb books of The Stone Book Quartet (my absolute favourites amongst this whole list, all of which are favourites in different ways, and at different times) are for young adults who, like the author, are establishing their place in the world, discovering where they came from, who they are, where they belong. This theme is taken even further in Strandloper, and now we are totally in the realm of adult literary fiction. We are soon to move far beyond it.  Thursbitch is, in its way, as revolutionary in thought and language-crafting as is Joyce's Ulysses, and as challenging (although not nearly as long). 

Boneland is nominally the conclusion of a Weirdstone trilogy, and in some senses it is. However it shows all the many years of gap that came between it and his two early children's adventures. To my mind it is an old man's book; written by someone with a lifetime of experience of writing and living. That does not mean it cannot be read by the young. But is is a distillation of narrative, language and thought. As such, it is difficult, hard to penetrate. It is not comfortable. But it rewards more than it costs. Consolation in ambivalence. 

Present magic

Through place, Alan Garner has, over and again, transmuted 'thens' into 'nows'.  They are often his 'thens', grounded in his places. But in his writing they become universal, our places, our 'thens', and so our 'nows' too. Where there is only one 'here', there is only one 'now'. 

'What might have been and what has been 
Point to one end, which is always present.'****

On this Alan Garner and T. S. Eliot seem to agree. Both conjure a world from small places, from words, from names. But they have be the true names, the old names, the lost names. Let the names be re-found, remembered. They are magic. Not cozily magic. Ambivalently magic. Truly magic. 

In Boneland he takes everything that his books have been about, compresses it into one hundred and fifty or so pages of numinous intensity and lifts it from the old earth to the cold stars. It is perhaps his greatest masterpiece. 


Notes:
*Susan Cooper runs them close, with The Dark is Rising books, as, of course does the wondrous Ursula Le Guin, with her whole sequence of Earthsea novels, but then she was American, and I am talking here of English wizards.
** Significant found objects that link us to the past, as defined in his latest, non-fiction publication The Beauty Things, co-authored with Mark Edmonds
*** I have not included here his non-fiction writing, nor his many retellings of folk and fairy tale, all of which are well worth exploring.  
*** *Four Quartets: Burnt Norton T. S. Eliot

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Embassy of the Dead by Will Mabbitt




Dead good

This was another of those books that I happened to pick up and didn't put down again until I had finished, despite being in the middle of other reading. It is always a good sign. 

Young readers should sometimes to be exposed to high quality, challenging writing, stories that help them develop empathy, learn more about their world and themselves. Through such books they can learn too about the power of language, of image and metaphor. 

But it is also important that they have  access to well written entertainment reads, books into which they can escape and discover new worlds of the imagination, worlds that amuse, excite, captivate and sometimes thrillingly scare them.  Good examples of such books are not always as easy to find as you might think. However, Will Mabbitt's latest certainly provides an outstanding example. 

His earlier Mabel Jones books are lovely examples of zany-comedy-with-a-warm-heart and deservedly have many young fans. Undoubtedly this will shortly increase as the first in the series, The Unlikely Adventures of Mabel Jones, has been included in the heavily promoted 'Tom Fletcher Book Club'. 

His new book, Embassy of the Dead, is, if anything, even better. 

Dead original

There have been a number of children's books recently which centre around the spooky fantasy of living humans who help ghosts to 'move on' into an afterlife. It is an idea that features strongly in Jonathan Stroud's brilliant series Lockwood & Co and in another book I much admire Whichwood by US author Tahereh Mafi (both for older children and young adults) as well as in the recently popular The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson. 

Despite sharing part of this basic premise, Embassy of the Dead has much about it that is hugely and entertainingly original. Rather than presenting us with the young agents of some ghost-busting organisation, protagonist Jake is a regular boy who suddenly finds himself having to try to penetrate the bureaucratic and somewhat inept Embassy of the Dead, an organisation tasked with guarding the border between this life and the afterworld. More specifically, he has to try to return a severed finger before it can be reunited with its long-dead corpse and used for uber-evil ends. All the while he is being pursued by monstrous foes, at least one of whom seems set on sending him into the Eternal Void. Will Mabbitt's great skill is to render such ludicrous goings on not only hilarious but grippingly involving too. 


Dead clever

Jake himself is grappling with the trauma of parental break-up and this convincing grounding in real life is one of the hooks that pull us so empathetically into his story. However his companions are far from the bravely loyal but rather anaemic friends of so many children's adventure stories. Instead Jake is partnered in this escapade by the ghost of a rather elderly, grumpy and self-righteous undertaker. Soon also joining his little 'gang' is a spectral schoolgirl who has, to put it mildly, something of an attitude, not to mention a hockey stick that delivers quite a clout, its ethereal nature notwithstanding. Later there is also the rather forlorn shade of a fox, and, thankfully, a heroic 'knight' of the agency, who at least understands what's going on. Agh, Hush! Enough! Suffice it to say that the weird and wonderful characters who people this story are its  greatest joy.  

Embassy of the Dead segues cleverly between creasingly funny and scarily exciting and sometimes even manages to be both at the same time. Even though this is a relatively light read (if you can use the term for a such a 'dark' storyline) Will Mabbitt builds his plot with masterful skill, continually surprising and twisting to keep his readers intrigued and the pages turning. Equally admirable is his construction of English prose, which conceals considerable craft and succeeds in communicating vividly whilst always remaining easy and comfortable to read. 

This hilariously spooky new book is entertainment of the highest order and will, I am sure, prove to be a real kid-pleaser. Hurray for another author who is doing so much to get and keep children reading. 

Dead right

Chris Mould's quirky and amusing illustrations complement the story perfectly. His accessible cartoon style adds another dimension of vivid life to the idiosyncratic and eccentric characters, and also helps to signal that this is 'gothic light', amusing escapism rather than anything that will seriously disturb young readers. 



The story ends as such stories do, and should. There is enough warm fuzziness to feel satisfying, without over sentimentality - and then a teaser for the next in the series. That there is more to come from this particular Embassy is further cause for celebration. 

Sunday, 10 June 2018

The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green



Something rather different

Here is another book very much for teenagers (and, of course, older readers too). 

Sally Green's Half Bad trilogy is one of the very finest works of recent YA fiction. Startlingly original and imaginative, in both concept and writing, it succeeds in being viscerally exciting and profoundly disturbing, both horrendously brutal and meltingly tender. It is a a triumph in every way, and has deservedly won the author international adulation. (See my reviews from June '15 and April '16. )

In her new follow up, The Smoke Thieves, she has sensibly gone for something rather different. In the three books (and two ebook-only stories) she has extensively exploited her unique Half Bad world and more of the same now would probably only dilute its impact. Her new book, in contrast, has a rather more conventional 'YA' feel, a pseudo-historical romantic fantasy, though with considerable edge and no little depth. Too much comparison with Half Bad is probably unhelpful. The Smoke Thieves is its own book. It is what it is, and what it is is very good, wonderfully written and hugely readable. 

Five times the story

As might be expected from Sally Green, the narrative is skilfully constructed, in this case following the interleaved stories of five main characters. At its heart is certainly romance. Catherine, is a classic 'feminist' lead, an initially duty-bound princess destined for a politically arranged marriage, who is gradually learning to assert her independence and become her own person. As the book develops, her inner conflict between a forbidden passion for her handsome guard and a growing admiration for her intended husband provides an involving emotional storyline. Soldier, Ambrose, the  principal 'love interest', is the most conventional character of the five, handsome, strong, and passionately devoted, yet inhibited by his comparatively lowly status. 

The other three character are, in different ways, rather more original and interesting. Tash, the youngest, and part of a team that hunts demons for their sought-after narcotic smoke, charmingly mixes feisty bravery and wicked cheek, with a longing for fashionable boots, perfectly capturing the ambiguities of her 'tween' years. Aggrieved 'nationalist'  March, grows strongly and captivatingly as a character alongside his developing relationship with feckless Edyon, who himself turns out to be of far more substance than is initially apparent. Sally Green, in this book, as in her last, shows a particular sensitivity towards gay relationships and their insecurities, especially when reciprocation of attraction is ambiguous. 



A book with everything (well almost)

Although The Smoke Thieves, in undeniably romantic, it is much else too.  In fact is a very long way from being 'soppy'. There is complex and fluctuating politicking between the rival kingdoms involved, and, indeed, bloody war is impending. There are a good number of gruesome killings and a highly graphically described and disturbing execution. Much of the tale. is viscerally exciting as well as emotionally engaging. There is intriguing mystery too, in enigmatic messages concerned with the titular smoke. If this book does not quite 'have everything', then it does have a very great deal. 

Sally Green has outstanding abilities as a storyteller and can mix and switch moods and atmospheres tellingly. There are sections, indeed, involving the theft of the demon smoke, which would have all the attributes of farce, were they not littered with a good deal of blood and gore. Her writing is given edge and modernity too with a generous lacing of 'strong language', although this is always used to effect, sometimes dramatic, somtimes laugh-out-loud funny. 

This long and highly entertaining read, turns out, in its final pages, to be not so much a self-contained novel, as the first part of a continuing saga. It will, I am very sure, leave its hoards of smitten readers, desperate for the next instalment.

US cover

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Orphan Monster Spy by Matt Killeen



Spy thriller for young adults

This is a truly outstanding example of a gripping thriller. The reader's engagement continually sustained, emotions manipulated and tension hiked through skilled writing and plotting. In the hands of Matt Killeen the  core scenario of a young Jewish girl* acting as a spy within Nazi Germany in 1939 lends itself quite wonderfully to this treatment. However, as with many other works of cinema and literature, it begs the question as to whether it is morally right to use the genuine horrors of this time as a context for viscerally exciting entertainment. 

Fictionalised history at its best

In fact Orphan Monster Spy passes this test convincingly. Although it certainly is exciting entertainment, it is far more too. It manages to retain historical integrity even where there is not complete authenticity. This  is partly because the author's impeccable research allows him to build on a base of sound fact and known incident. His story enables him to explain much that actually happened (such as Krystallnacht) without undue didacticism. Beyond this, the metaphor of Nazi monstrousness that he weaves into his fictional institutions and characters is totally convincing and hugely effective. 

This is categorically not a book for younger readers. Much of the very worst of Nazi German thinking and behaviour is expressed in the experience of protagonist, Sarah, as well as other young characters. This includes the most horrendous abuse, emotional, physical and, indeed, sexual. Although plot elements are manipulated and exaggerated in the service of exciting narrative, the underlying obnoxiousness, so painfully explored, is completely truthful. The power of the storytelling simply focuses rather than distorts this chilling period of our history. 

Youth corrupted

The book is particularly strong in bringing back to life the systems of influence and indoctrination that were so effective in souring the hearts and minds of so many Germans, including its youth. It explains without justifying. Nor does it oversimplify the issues of this or any war. Complexities and ambiguities are given their full due, as are characters who don't fit fully into either the monster or angel mould. Yet it is the weight of horror and hatred that comes across most strongly and nauseatingly - something  today's young people might not want to be aware of, but need to be all the same. 

Over and above all this, there is a strong thread in the book that should please all those (male as well as female) who support the cause of feminism. Not only is Sarah the epitome of female ingenuity, resilience and fortitude, but the book actually centres on the whole issue of females needing to fight for themselves. That it explores negative  aspects of fanatical determination, alongside enormously positive ones, only makes its arguments for the cause of women and girls all the stronger. 

Powerful writing

Amongst many other examples Matt Killeen's wonderful writing is a most delightful description of eating peanut butter for the first time. I know of few better examples of uber-perceptive observation linked with a command of language that communicates it wonderfully. There are also many passages that show again and again just how vivid, visceral and 'in the moment' writing in the third person past tense can be; how well it can achieve  filmic switch of focus and widen or narrow perspective as the narrative requires. This is writing of skill and maturity - and how effective it is in mesmerising the reader with the author's thrilling but chilling story. 

More to come

The end of the book flags up a sequel, which, if up to the standard of this one, will be a most welcome addition to the canon of works which bring the World Wars back into focus for today's young readers. However I hope the author is not tempted to allow the fiction of Sarah the spy to outrun the integrity of purpose, or the  underlying authenticity, of this first affecting thriller. 


US edition 
*As defined by the Nazis. 

Friday, 25 May 2018

Station Zero (Railhead Book 3) by Philip Reeve



'"This isn't real. It's a virtual environment."
"Yes, but it's a real virtual environment."' (p 267)

Quotable quotes 

Station Zero is described on its UK hardback cover as, 'A stunning step beyond the universe.' It is totally apt. However, if I were selecting a quote for the jacket, from the work itself, it would be the one above - enigmatic, psychedelic and perfectly capturing the essence of this wonderful book. 

  Traction cities

Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines sequence, built initially around the wild concept of mobile, predatory cities, is one of the finest works of children's speculative fiction from recent times. It is characterised by startlingly original and imaginative world-building coupled with characters who are complex, entertaining and completely engaging. He develops these through highly communicative language and intriguing plots that grip through multiple twists and turns. The end result is to create a bizarrely fantastic world and render it totally credible and utterly absorbing. 

Engines of a different kind

In a very different context, and for, perhaps, a slightly older readership*, he has recaptured exactly these qualities in his most recent Railhead Trilogy, now concluded in Station Zero.  (See my reviews of the first two volumes from October '15 and November '16. )

If at the heart of Mortal Engines are traction cities, then central to the Railhead books is a vast network of sentient trains. These startling phenomena use mysterious 'K Gates' to travel  in seconds through vast distances of space, linking planets and galaxies into a connected universe of different worlds. This network underpins the complex politics and warring  behaviour of human dynasties across a vast Empire. Also to be found in Philip Reeve's creation are alien species, many most imaginatively conceived, as well as highly advanced androids,  called 'motoriks', some with realistic human personalities. It is indeed a 'world' of highly complex cyber-technology, underpinned by vast data sets which not only store information but can house cyber-copies of dead personalities and indeed an entire pantheon of 'data gods', known as the Guardians. All of of this is linked by the trains, with their esoteric language of trainsong. It is they who transport data from one world to another, maintaining a hyper-complex Web. 

And behind everything, or perhaps above everything, hangs the spectre of the long-vanished Railmaker, creator of the network itself.  Is he a myth? A Ghost? A data-memory? Or could he be a reality? 

The whole is a fantasy-fest of immense fascination . Only the very finest SF writers of the past have created speculative worlds of such originality and richness. 



Trains are people too

The build of narrative through the first two books has been rivetingly strong, but any fears that the staggering climax of the second would be hard to follow are rapidly dispelled in Station Zero. Protagonist, 'railhead' Zen, continues to develop strongly as a complex, flawed, yet deeply likeable hero. He is surrounded by equally fascinating characters, human, alien, mechanical and even virtual. They emerge rich and rounded, regardless of the number of dimensions they apparently have. This is a world that truly lives in the reader's imagination, and memory. And again, of course there are the magnificent trains, with their exotic names and varied personalities. If ever you doubted that trains could be engaging, evolving characters (and I would not blame you if you did) then you need to read this book. 

'Humans and Guardians have one thing in common, I've found. They both tend to underestimate trains. We are people too, you know, and we have just as much interest in working out the problems of this crazy galaxy as you do.' (p 198)

Believe me, these trains are as far from Thomas the Tank Engine as George Orwell's farm is from Old Macdonald's 

Love-bot

Railhead is deeply political and violent, but it carries a central love interest, too, albeit one with a remarkable twist. The strong feelings which Zen develops are not for another human being but for Nova, a 'female' motorik, a 'wire dolly', that is to say a machine, albeit a sentient and highly intelligent one. At the end of the second book they are separated, it appears for good. Here in the third, there is a development that is shocking to the core. I could not possibly spoil things for others  by giving away even the slightest hint, but suffice to say that it is as mind-blowing for the reader as it is for Zen. 

Riding the rails

Even more so, perhaps, than in his earlier books, Philip Reeve's consistently skilful use of language is frequently stunning. His word pictures of different worlds are vividly evocative, sometimes ravishing, sometimes bleakly disquieting. His capturing of action, character and emotion are equally effective and he can thrill, shock and move with remarkable power.  

His complex plot is continually engrossing and speeds down shining rails, glides over sweeping viaducts, negotiates strange stations and plunges into dark tunnels just as dramatically as do its phenomenal trains. It can bring tears to a reader's eyes as well as breathless excitement; it intrigues and surprises; it amuses and confounds. 

Our world too

Despite its fantastic setting , there is much in the Railhead books that resonates strongly with our own world, and this is perhaps particularly pertinent in Station Zero. 

Directly and indirectly, Zen and Nova have opened up gates to new and alien worlds and brought both beneficial trade and floods of immigration into their section of the Empire. However, the malevolent usurper Emperor wants to close off these routes again and protect the insularity of his own domain. Moreover he is prepared to use overwhelming force to consolidate his power and exclude all alien influence. 

'His rail armada would go storming onwards . . . until . . . the gate to the Web of Worlds was barred, and his Empire was safe and whole again.' (p 29)

There is much that feels all too familiar. . 

Even more importantly though, Station Zero, with all its different worlds, its pervasive datasets and its many layers of  virtual existence, provides for a thoughtful exploration of what reality actually is and means. It challenges our preconceptions. It provokes, disturbs and moves in a way that completely lifts it from being merely an entertaining read and establishes it as a work of fine literature. 

This operates not only on a conceptual level but on a deeply human one too.  Zen's love for Nova, a being who can change her appearance, back up her personality, even exist out of her body, calls into question exactly what it is that we love about another. What does or doesn't it take for a person to cease to be the one we love? This book questions some of our deepest convictions. And yet it is profoundly beautiful too, deeply affecting, transfiguring and enlightening. The song of the trains, like the songlines of native Australians, or the singing of humpback whales, reverberates through our very bones. 

Station Zero, the place, is itself is a most telling creation. The origin of the Railmaker's whole network, with its idyllic recreation of a Railway Children station, is perhaps the railhead equivalent of W. B. Yeats' Lake Isle of Innisfree. It is the escape from everything, the place we always want to get back to. Together with Zen, we yearn to re-find it. It is the childhood we have lost (or perhaps never had). 

And yet it is not Station Zero that lies at the end of this storyline. This book is not about escape from reality. It is about finding it. In astonishing places. 

It's all one in the end

I am tempted to say that Station Zero is by far the finest book of a very fine trilogy. But this is not quite it. It is more that Station Zero is the work that brings its predecessors into full focus and illuminates the greatness of the whole trilogy. In fact, this is, not really a trilogy so much as one book, one story, in three parts. Its climax is truly staggering, but could not exist without its complex development. 

Many works of children's and young adult fiction centre on their protagonist discovering their own self, finding out exactly who they are. Railhead, rather, is about discovering how many selves we can be - and all of them us, and all of them real. 

'Human being live loads of different lives at once. They always have. One life in the real world and the others in daydreams, in memories, in stories, in games. Lots of lives all going on at once, and all of them real in some way or other.' (p 268)

Those who read Railhead, with its superb culmination in Station Zero, will be left with multiple worlds, multiple lives. And always . . . the trains. 


US editions

Note:
*Although this always very much depends on the reader. 


Sunday, 20 May 2018

The Chosen Ones (Worldquake Book 2) by Scarlett Thomas



'You've really read (her) books?'
'Yes, I just said.'
'But they're for children!
'Lots of adults read children's fiction.'
'Doesn't it stunt your mind?'
(p 215)


Originality is curved

Scarlett Thomas' Worldquake novels, now up to their second iteration in The Chosen Ones, have helped me to an understanding of something very important about fiction, and perhaps about life too, you never know. The continuum that stretches from completely unoriginal to wildly imaginative is not in fact linear, but, like Einsteinian spacetime, curved. It is a giant, flexible mollusc or, if you prefer a sort of conceptual Möbius strip. It only has one side. In simpler terms, if you go far enough in one direction you end up going in the opposite one, which turns out, after all, to be the same one as you were going in to start with. Simple. QED, you can be so unoriginal that you end up being wildly imaginative. Of course, it's all to do with spacetime really being a field, so originality is probably a field too, complete with cowpats.  But let's not go there *

Like it's predecessor, Dragon's Green (see my post from April '17),  her new sequel is a catch all for elements that have epitomised children's fantasy fiction over recent decades. Apart from dragons and other 'fantastic beasts', just about everything you can think of is in the The Chosen Ones - and you are left with a strong suspicion that even the firedrakes may appear before long. Here there is magic of many different qualities, 'good' and 'dark', performed by mages, witches, clairvoyants, healers, and goodness knows how many varieties of practitioner. There are two 'worlds' beside the 'real' one, accessed by a variety of portals. There are children who are 'epiphanised' to discover they have magical talents and world-saving destinies There is a school with oddball teachers, there are prophesies, magical objects and plots by megalomaniac villains. It is possible to step into stories, talk to animals and be transported by music. Nor is fantasy the only source of the author's borrowing. The Worldquake set up references a good number of other 'classic' elements of children's literature too, as well as drawing  heavily on aspects of fantasy role play gaming. 

A writer of kharakter 

Of course Scarlett Thomas is a highly intelligent and experienced author, so all of this is not a weak writer's overuse of standard characters and plots but conscious, clever and playful reference.  However, the most impressive thing of all is that, whilst she revels, and allows her readers to revel, in this delicious feast of pastiche, she still succeeds in weaving all these elements into a most engaging and original fantasy story of her own. In doing so she shows unbounded imagination. In short she shows just how original unoriginality can be. 

In terms of what, in these books, she calls  'kharakter',  Scarlett Thomas seems to be something of a 'composer interpreter, one who creates something entirely new through the reading of something already in existence.' (p 225)

Laughing all the way to the Otherworld

Even more than in the first book, in this second her narrative feels like it has begun to coalesce, to become more comfortable in its own artistic skin. Inevitably, her story is a rather complex one; she is weaving together so very many elements. Yet it only makes her world so much the richer, so much more intriguing and engrossing. And the fixative of this cohesion is humour. Much of her book is simply and joyfully, very, very funny. 

However the huge entertainment value of The Chosen Ones does not come solely from parody. Some of its humour  lies in ridiculous characters, attitudes and actions and  some in near farcical action and incident. Scarlett Thomas' use of incongruous juxtaposition is often delicious. 

'Terrence and Skylurian ate prawn cocktails by the fireside, gazing into one another's eyes. And that is when she'd told him her whole plan. Flipping heck! He had been, as they say, gobsmacked. It had been a little hard to take in at first, especially while trying not to get Marie Rose sauce down his jumper.' (p 171)

Wicked

Scarlett Thomas, the writer, has a wicked sense of humour and (thankfully) cannot resist also peppering her narrative with jibes and japes about many contemporary issues. Her main targets are all things writerly, including insecure, jealous authors, as well as agents, editors and the down side of school author visits. She has a delightful dig at children's books with '. . . no magic . . . no mythical creatures and no exciting action scenes. Instead . . . lots of swear-words and miserable children. ' (p 215). She sharply mocks knee-touching, powerful yet illiterate Americans ('I pay people to read and write for me, sugar.') and unscrupulously ambitious academics ('Orwell would do pretty much anything - including changing his entire belief system - if it meant a chance of promotion.' ) Amongst a wide range of other butts for her wit are Freudian-type dream interpretation, fermented foods and, apparently, turquoise shirts (?!). Her book really is a completely joyful hoot. 

Story will out

Yet, although a very different style of writer, she shares with Terry Pratchett an ability to toy with the genre without diminishing involvement in the storyline. In her case, the success of this duality lies largely in the fact that it is the subsidiary characters who are the focus of the humour, whilst her group of young protagonists are always fully involved in and seriously committed to the action of the story. Her 'famous five' are vividly drawn, believable characters with real issues and emotions with which young readers will readily identify. The adults may be stupid, but, even when they are young and foolish, the children aren't. We desperately want them to save their world, just as much as we do the young heroes of more straight-laced fantasy, and so their wayward adventures are still grippingly exciting. 

Back to quantum physics

Perhaps I can risk my sadly limited understanding of physics and propose one further final image from the quantum field. Apparently a sub-atomic particle can potentially be in any number of possible places and only actually resolves this ambiguity by materialising in a particular location when it bangs into something else, that is, when it experiences an 'event'.  

Scarlett Thomas has cleverly produced a book with multiple potential readings that will only resolve in the event of it being read. Bookish intellectuals will delight in its witty pastiche and droll jibes. More importantly, however, children will be enchanted by it as an absorbing fantasy; a transporting tale in the Harry Potter tradition, but cleverer, richer, funnier and, yes, more original than most. However her most appreciative audience will, perhaps, comprise child-like intellectuals and intelligent children. Both these groups will joyfully revel in all of the book's fascinating facets.  

Positively glowing

Underneath all its jolly japes, Scarlett Thomas' novel is a peon to the power and importance of books, even children's fantasy books. Surely the clinching factor in its being a fine work is that its thwarted super-villains are those who 'like abusing the natural magic of books for their own ends.' (p 320) There are few more important triumphs. 

'Remember, children, that the only good authors in this world are long dead,' pontificates caricatured classics-loving schoolteacher Mrs Beathag Hide. (p 173)

She is, of course, far from correct, as Scarlett Thomas again ably proves**

There are now another two beacons of children's fantasy literature joyfully glowing in the dark. 

(Unless of course Canongate is just a cover for the Matchstick Press!***)



Notes:
*I might just get out of my depth. Even though I did Physics up to 'O' Level (I'm that old), I'm only up to page 27 in Carlo Rovelli's Reality Is Not What It Seems and haven't even started The Order of Time yet. 
**Along with many others. 
***You'll understand when you read it!