Angie Sage is another wonderful children's fantasy writer whose books I have enjoyed for many years now. She most certainly deserves a place amongst 21 century greats and her relatively recently published Pathfinder gives me the prompt needed to write about her achievements here. Pathfinder is the first book in a promised new sequence featuring Alice TodHunter ('Tod') Moon, a follow on from her earlier Septimus Heap novels. So, first, what of Septimus Heap himself?
This delightful sequence of books is very much 'full fantasy' specifically for children. Its general target age is probably around 9-11, although, as with many such works, it can be enjoyed by an older readership too - and certainly often is. It is 'sorcery' without the 'sword': wizards, good and evil, dragons, princesses, castles, magical towers, the works. Although comprising seven books, it is certainly a sequence, not a series. Even though each book contains a largely complete 'adventure', the whole has a clear through line of development tracing its protagonist, Septimus Heap, through his long and eventful apprenticeship until he becomes a full wizard. At the start of the first book Septimus is an apparently insignificant boy soldier without even a name (for most of the story he is 'Boy 412' ) but he is soon to learn that he is Septimus, the seventh son of a seventh son, and has latent magical (here 'magykal') powers. These he develops and extends through his apprenticeship, overcoming many obstacles and defeating many evils along the way until he comes into his own as a very special and powerful wizard. His story is paralleled by the development of his adoptive sister, Jenna, and indeed by that of several other young characters as well. In essence it is that most potent, 'every child' fantasy of growing from someone apparently insignificant and unimportant into someone special, powerful, magical.
In all of this it has to be said that Septimus Heap is not the most original or ground-breaking work in concept. It is an easy comparison with Harry Potter. Such parallels have been claimed for far too many subsequent works. However this one really can helpfully be described as a cross between Harry Potter and Discworld. It has a good deal of the same core appeal as the former, together with something of the 'silly' humour and the wildly imaginative world-building of the latter, without, of course, Pratchett's more arch, adult wit and satire. However Angie Sage's creation is in no way derivative. What it may lack in overall originality of concept it amply makes up for in its imaginative inventivenes. These books burst with endearing young characters with whom it is easy to identify, with quirky and engaging adults, with ugly monsters and with a whole range of inventively imagined 'evil villains. The creation of these characters is also, in the hardback and other U.S. editions, much enhanced by the quite wonderfully evocative pencil drawing of illustrator Mark Zug. These are, sadly, missed out of the UK paperbacks. All of these characters inhabit a rich and multi-faceted world of varied geography and culture. The 'baddies' particularly, though, have a certain cartoon-like quality; they are comedy grotesques. This means that, very suitably for many in its young readership, the 'evil' is presented as exciting and dangerous, but without the sense of real and disturbing darkness found, for example, in Michelle Paver's Wolf Brother books. Angie Sage's use of language, too, is never exceptional, but it is always most skilfully used in the service of her rich characters and strong narrative, and perfectly suited to its intended audience.
In all of this, the Septimus Heap sequence constitutes one of the great works of full fantasy literature for a younger age-group than is more generally found. Almost inevitably across seven books, some of the stories are rather stronger than others, but nonetheless it is a stunning overall achievement. Sadly it seems to be a little neglected by many UK teachers. It would make a great alternative read aloud or group read to Harry Potter, which many young readers will probably come to on their own anyway. This may well change if and when the promised motion picture version actually materialises. Meanwhile this remains the richest of imagination fodder for avid young readers.
And now we have the start of a new, although related, sequence, The Magykal World of TodHunter Moon.
When this publication was pre-notified I was slightly concerned that Angie Sage was in danger of overworking her very successful formula. However her imagination and storytelling continue so strongly that this has proved unfounded. Whilst still keeping track of her former now-well-loved characters as part of the adult generation, in Pathfinder she introduces a whole new cast of equally likeable youngsters, led by the admirably gutsy but nevertheless vulnerable Tod. Whilst the books have always featured a good mix of the genders in all kinds of roles, young and older, strong and weak, good and bad, 'magyk' and not, it is refreshing to have a female in the lead role of the series. Even if she is something of a tomboy, in name and appearance at least, Tod does clearly provide a strong central figure with whom girls can empathise, whilst not in any way excluding boy readers. However, whilst Tod's role is indeed crucial, this is essentially very much an ensemble piece for both the older and younger characters in its cast.
At the start of this new sequence Angie Sage also introduces a whole new magical concept into her world: that of the 'Ancient Ways' which link locations. These are linked through a complex series of 'hubs', open and hidden, through which Tod and the lineage to which she belongs are the 'Pathfinders'. This adds a wonderfully imaginative new dimension to her already rich world, offering many new story threads. The network of Ancient Ways plays a central part in this first story and will presumably be developed through the sequence.
In the early chapters of Pathfinder Angie Sage focuses largely on establishing her new characters and their world. Although it is not without its excitements and effective story hooks, this part of the book almost inevitably has something of feeling its way in for both writer and reader. However when Tod reaches the Wizard's Tower the author is immediately in home territory and the story and characters really begin to sing. The final section of the book provides her signature helter-skelter of exciting action as evil is battled, albeit with some difficulty and at some cost. I hope it is not a too much of a spoiler to say that by the end of the book Tod has begun to discover her own powers and becomes apprenticed at the Tower. However her development as a character and as wielder of ' magyk' clearly has a way to go. This combined with other key plot elements left seriously unresolved at the end of this first book mean that the new sequence is well set up. Pathfinder is a most promising start to a Septimus Heap follow on; more of what is is familiar without being simply more of the same. Innumerable readers will, like me, be delighted to be able to spend further time in this delightful world. However any readers new to it would probably still be best starting Septimus Heap from the beginning rather than jumping in here.
Whilst in no way reflecting on the novel itself, I have to say that I am disappointed by the physical book in its UK hardback manifestation (directly above). This seems to take the new start much too far and bears no resemblance in design of even format to the earlier books. Nor does it appear to me to capture the feel of Angie Sage's world particularly well. Its greatest merit is a very tactile dust jacket. However this is seriously outweighed by the total absence of Mark Zug's wonderful illustrations, which by now feel like such an integral part of this world. Any who have already collected the original hardback set, or indeed who simply love beautiful books, would be well advised to seek out instead the U.S. Edition (heading this post), which not only continues the style of its predecessors but also has quite stunning whole page Mark Zug drawings.
I have a final minor quibble, which again in no way reflects on the writing itself, but which I found very irritating as a reader. In Pathfinder every one of the 'magykal' words is, bizarrely, emboldened on every occurrence. This terminology is very much a part of Angie Sage's imagined world and indeed is an important element in creating it. I do hope that some editor has not decided that, unless these words are flagged heavily as special, they may be taken as models of 'incorrect' spelling. If so, this is very silly. I am sure that any child with the reading skill and experience to access these books will be able to recognise imaginatively coined words when they see them.