'All the house was strange. Snow-glimmer lit ceilings and odd corners with a reflected whiteness. . . It was as if the house wanted her to flit silently through its secrets.' (p 133)
An older magic
The fact that award-winning author Catherine Fisher was appointed as the inaugural Young Person's Laureate for Wales in 2014 is testament to her stature as a children's writer - if indeed any were needed beyond her considerable body of wonderful writing.
I have been a huge fan of hers since she started writing, at the beginning of the 1990s. In those days she produced a number of outstanding fantasies for older children, much in the tradition of Alan Garner; terse, enigmatic works that drew potently on Celtic myth, particularly that of her native Wales. Three of theses first novels, The Conjuror's Game, Fintan's Tower and The Candle Man were subsequently republished together as The Glass Tower. She followed with another outstanding trilogy The Snow-Walker. All are still most definitely worth seeking out, both by adults interested in children's literature and by young readers themselves.
Later, her powerful, imaginative writing developed more for a young adult audience. Of her many wonderful titles and sequences Incarceron stands out as one of the masterworks of the genre, although my own favourites remain those most strongly drawing on Celtic myth, to which she returns time and again, notably Darkhenge and Corbenic.
Now she has produced what I think is her first major novel for younger children (7 upwards, I would say). And most welcome it is too, particularly as works of this fine quality are comparatively rare for the age-group. Beautifully crafted and sensitively written it is intriguing and exciting. It chills with its tale of snowy winter, both in landscape and atmosphere, whilst simultaneously warming with deep charm and inventive humour.
Catherine Fisher's language is superficially accessible, as befits her audience, yet she proves herself brilliant at evoking place, character and atmosphere. Her word-painting shows all the honed skill of art that conceals art. It is a testament to this skill that it was only a few pages into the book before this reader felt completely drawn into the world of her protagonist. And a very cold world it is too. This is a book to read wrapped a warm sweater, hugging a mug of hot chocolate.
Initially this 'Victorian' tale has something of the feel of The Secret Garden, as orphan Seren ('Star' in Welsh) arrives in a large house left desolate by the mysterious disappearance of the son of the household. Peopled with a small cast of strongly drawn characters, gripping intrigue drives the narrative relentlessly, if chillingly, forward, until it gradually morphs into something more ephemeral. Fantasy seeps in and, in the later stages, the story becomes deeply magical as it draws further into its Celtic roots. Here it is enigmatic, mysterious, almost poetic, in a way that gently echoes Catherine Fisher's earlier books, and it immerses its young audience in a world of fantasy very different from, say, Harry Potter, but, perhaps, far more potent too. Its key is a drop of blood and a single tear.
A crow, couplets and Christmas
One of the imaginative triumphs of the novel is the creation of the titular clockwork crow. Superficially gruff and irascible, and indeed possibly mendacious , this tatty assembly of a creature nevertheless adds humour and warmth to the tale, and his relationship with protagonist Seren is ultimately central to a cleverly paced and structured plot.
Another of the the delightful features of the book is the inclusion, at each chapter head, of an intriguing rhyming couplet:
'Walls of ice, stars of silver,
Winter ways you'll walk forever.' (p 143)
These enhance the text magically, and add up to a lyrical synopsis of the essential story; a summation well worth the assembling.
This is 'Fairy Tale' if you like. But it is not the Fairy Tale of Grimm or Perrault. Nor yet are these fairies from the bottom of a Victorian garden. These folk are snow cold and terrifying. There are perhaps echoes of Greek myth, emphasising the universality of this material. There is even more of The Snow Queen. But this is deeper rooted. This is a Fairy Tale of the Celtic people, a Fairy Tale of the western realms, a tale of the Tylwyth Teg. It was here before Anderson. It was here before we were. Long before. But it will outstay us too. And Catherine Fisher's magical book will last with it.
For teachers, I think this would make an outstanding pre-Christmas read-aloud; one that will stretch children's language and imagination, whilst showing them that story can be completely captivating through other means than roller-coaster action or knockabout silliness. In Catherine Fisher's skilful hands, together you could start to reach gently, yet engagingly, towards the numinous. And towards Christmas too.