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.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Pathfinder (& Septimus Heap Sequence) by Angie Sage

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.



Thursday, 6 November 2014

Early Novels by Marcus Sedgwick

As intended I have gone right back to the beginning of Marcus Sedgwick's oeuvre and have so far managed to re read all of the first three.

Setting aside for the moment his very young children's series, his 'mainstream' novels, have, become increasingly sophisticated and complex, and been aimed at increasingly older readers, as his writing has developed. In this, and in other ways too, he quite closely parallels the writing journey of Alan Garner, although he has actually been considerably more prolific and has never(as yet at least) become quite as obscure as his illustrious predecessor. Despite Garner's undoubted genius and ground-breaking achievements, his later novels are so erudite and abstruse as to make for very hard going.

Marcus Sedgwick's first novel, Floodland (2000), is a short and relatively straightforward story, primarily, it appears, for a readership of around 9-13. It was considered a very notable debut at the time, worthily winning accolades and awards, and if it seems just a little less exciting now it is only in comparison with some of the very remarkable and indubitably great books he has written since. Its subject matter is fantasy only in so far as it imagines a world following serious global warming where East Anglia has been widely inundated to the extent that places such as Norwich only remain as small islands in the sea. How fanciful this may be is perhaps a matter for careful consideration. The story concerns a girl who, separated from her family, refurbishes an abandoned rowing boat and bravely escapes the devastation of Norwich only to find herself stranded on an even smaller island centred on the ruins of Ely cathedral. This 'Eel Island' is inhabited by a ragamuffin band of disparate people scrabbling, and fighting, for survival. They are being dominated by a bully gang of boys with a charismatic but vicious young boy leader. This main section of the novel has many echoes of Lord of the Flies, although, whilst not without its violence, it is never as totally dark and devastating - but then it is for children. More than anything this is the story of the girl's lone fight for survival against hideous difficulty; her quest to re-find her parents and some sort of normality. In this aspect it has something of Morris Gleitzman or Meg Rosoff, although, again, it is never quite as intensely moving as the best of either of these. The greatest strength of Floodland is perhaps its human understanding and its lesson that there is something good to the found in even the seemingly worst of people. It is a promising rather than a great book, but is nevertheless an engaging and thought provoking one and well worth reading. It would make a strong read-aloud for, say, a Year Six teacher looking for something different from the same tired old standbys, particularly if they want to tie-in with an environmental theme.

The novel which quickly followed, Witch Hill (2001), is another very interesting book, probably for about the same age range. It is very much concerned with the landscape and folklore of a particular English place, which, although here fictionalised, draws very heavily upon locations in the South Downs area associated with ancient chalk figures. In this case the place is also imagined as 'haunted' by somewhat later historical associations with the supposed witchcraft of the seventeenth century. Within this context a young boy works out his acceptance of a recent 'real life' trauma, experiencing his family home on fire, and his associated guilt about failing to rescue his little sister. In all of this, it feels in both both style and tone to belong quite firmly within the earlier traditions of such writers as Alan Garner, Penelope Lively and Melvyn Burgess. I do not mean this critically, only that, in this sense, it is not a strongly innovative work, despite being a sensitively written and very engaging one.

However it is with his third novel, The Dark Horse (2002), that Marcus Sedgwick really begins to show his colours as a truly great writer. This book is probably best suited to somewhat older children, although it is not yet the full 'teen fiction' of some of his later works. It is a rich, dark and moving tale; thoughtful yet never less than gripping. It begins to push the boundaries of children's fiction firmly into great literature but without ever losing sight of its audience or sacrificing the need to engage and enthral. The Dark Horse is set in a in a distant past and a primitive landscape that is essentially an imaginative creation although its roots are firmly in well-researched historical and geographical reality. It's world is richly conceived and portrayed; it lives in a very real sense. However it does also belong on the periphery of fantasy. Although not attempting to portray a 'full fantasy' realm, it's small sphere does include elements of magic. The special abilities of its young female protagonist, Mouse, could, at a stretch, be interpreted as no more than an intense empathy with animals, but they often seems to extend well beyond that and therefore beyond mere reality. This adds another intense layer of the exotic, the 'other', to the tale. The actual writing in this book is also far more powerful and bold than in the earlier two; it too starts to push boundaries. Both sentences and chapters are short, almost curt, and add significantly to the harsh, sometimes brutal world created. They also propel the narrative with a visceral urgency. In this book too Marcus Sedgwick begins to play with narrative form, something which is to become an exciting element of much of his subsequent writing. The Dark Horse has a dual perspective, with an authorial, 'objective' voice interspersed with the subjective first person narration of the book's other protagonist, Sigurd. This works particularly well in the early part of the book where the principal voice moves forward the 'in the moment' narration whilst Sig's voice fills in the backstory. However, perhaps the most mature elements in this disturbing book are the moral ambiguity of its characters and its shocking turn of events. The enigmatic ending is strangely satisfying whilst remaining deeply troubling.

This is the first of many great books from a great writer. Hopefully I will revisit and explore more soon.


Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick


Particular books seem to find their way to me when it is the right time for them to be read. Sometimes they just spring off a bookshop shelf and I find I have read a good few of the first pages there and then, whilst still in the shop; of course they have to be purchased and brought home for immediate consumption even when I had no intention of buying books that trip . They then demand to be read immediately despite the pile of others patiently waiting their turn to be started. Sometimes a book is recommend by a friend or reviewed somewhere and I know that I just have to track it down and start it at once. Sometimes a book jumps off my own shelves demanding to be read after it has been sitting there quietly for years. Sometimes such a read follows a thread from other books, sometimes it starts a completely new reading journey. But such books always say: you need to read me NOW. And they are almost always right. Conversely I can make my own decision about what to read next only to find a few pages or chapters in that the book is saying: sorry, mate, but I'm not the right one for you to read just now. Maybe some other time, eh?

Of course this may just be a fanciful way of justifying a response to my own mood or whim. But I have known books that I really didn't feel like reading next push themselves to the top of my pile in front of others that I had been waiting ages to read - even newly publish sequels that I have awaited with impatience and acquired with eager anticipation as soon as they came out. Here is just such a book, newly published itself of course, but which queue-jumped most forcefully.

Marcus Sedgwick is actually far from new to me. I have been reading his novels with delight for many years now. He is without question one of the most significant children's/YA writers of recent years, not least because he has not limited himself to one particular genre or style but continually experiments most excitingly with stories and their telling. However I have so far refrained from including his work in this blog. His now considerable oeuvre includes a rich variety of books spanning almost everything from jokey novelettes for quite young children to adult fiction and even a graphic novel. However, those which,in my view, are his most significant work are for a rather older age range (often clearly YA) than was my original self-imposed criterion here. Nor are they always fantasy, at least in the sense of the 'magic fiction' that I started out to explore.

However, now that I have revised and expanded my blogging parameters (see post 'My quest six months in'), I cannot but include the brilliant Marcus Sedgwick. Certainly his latest book's demands to be read were fully justified, despite, or more particularly because of, its defiance of easy classification.

The Ghosts of Heaven pushes to the very boundaries of YA fiction in a whole host of ways. Its readership needs to be well towards the oldest end of that age range - or at least they need to be very experienced, sophisticated readers. The book is a reading and intellectual challenge, and is fully intended to be so. It comprised four separate and disparate novellas related by an enigmatic theme. This is encapsulated in iterative manifestations of a spiral or helix pattern which is often both a physical reality and a metaphysical idea. Interestingly the author invites the reader to access the four sections in their own choice of any of the twenty four possible permutations of their order. He points out in his introduction that different logics and meanings can be discovered for each sequencing. However the most obvious logic is to be found in the printed order which follows the theme through an intermittent chronology stretching from the distant past to an unspecified, but possibly equally distant, future.

The first story, as presented, is of a prehistoric girl who has an unappreciated talent and wants desperately to contribute to the magic of creating cave art, including,of course, spiral patterns. This tale is enriched by being most bravely written in verse. This is actually loose and informal enough to remain reasonably accessible in the reading, which flows fluently enough once the eye and mind adjusts to its form. What it does achieve very effectively however is a wonderful sense of otherness and nice balance of engagement and distance. It is an intriguing though ultimately disturbing tale, which is a good mark setter for those who begin this way, as disturbing is perhaps one of the most apt descriptions of the whole work too.

The next story is the one which I found rather disappointingly unoriginal, although this is only comparative in a work which is startlingly original overall. It is the tale of girl in the seventeenth century accused of witchcraft by a fanatic working in the name of fundamentalist religion and ultimately supported by a gullible populace who quickly turn into a braying mob. The tale is perfectly well written and ultimately moving, as you would expect from such a story. However this is well-trodden ground in fiction and Marcus Sedgwick does not really add much to what has already been effectively said both about this horror in our history or indeed its parallels to equally appalling and terrifying aspects of our own world. This is the section too through which the spiral images themselves seemed most contrived. Yes the spiral maze, or Troy, does indeed feature in our 'magical' past, although I am less sure of its association with witchcraft. However, other instances of the spiral do feel as if they have been rather shoehorned in here. Even so, this story will be new to many of the intended readers, to whom I am sure it will contribute powerfully to the whole.

The third story, as printed, is by far the most intriguing and original; a truly wonderful piece of writing. Set in a mental hospital, it explores the relationship of a would be reforming doctor and his young daughter with a former poet, who is now a (supposed) dangerous patient. I will not say much more, but it is a little masterpiece and a paradigm of great writing from first to last.

The final section is a science fiction tale of an attempted 'escape' mission from Earth that is travelling light years to a supposedly inhabitable new planet in a distant galaxy. It has something of the feel of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, although it is this time not derivative and is filled with rich and sometimes terrifying imagination. More than anything though it explores a human beings' journey in search of himself, in one way quite literally. It is here that the significance and importance of the spiral/helix images are most fully and explicitly explored. It is another great piece of writing, quite wonderfully thought provoking around some of life's most profound questions.

I do just wonder whether the spiral images throughout, and the very laudable 'morals' that emerge toward the end of the piece, are just a little over-pointed. But then again perhaps, in the light of the intended YA audience, a little clarity is not out of place after all the ambiguity and questioning of this rich and complex work.

Above everything, however, it is an absolute joy to find a young readership being offered something so uncondescending as is The Ghosts of Heaven. It pushes boundaries in terms of both content and form and if it is a challenging read in many senses then it is all the more wonderful for that. It is a very great book and a massively significant contribution to the canon. For all its complexities it is ultimately also a most rewarding and enjoyable read too.

My impression from periodic and rather haphazard reading of various of his works over recent years has left me with the impression that Marcus Sedgwick has developed most interestingly as a writer, exploring many different forms and approaches on the way. So it is my intention now to go back and reread his early work (which does still fall into the 21st century and therefore the parameters of this blog) in order to trace this extraordinary journey. That is, of course, as long as no other books intrude themselves in the meantime.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Spirit's Key by Edith Cohn


This is a little gem of a book. It is very American in several senses, but that is not to say that it is in any way inaccessible to children (or adults) here in the UK, where it deserves to find a wide and appreciative readership. It belongs, I feel, very much to a particular distinctive thread of US children's fiction which grew with such wonderful writers as Betsy Byars, Katherine Patterson and Lois Lowry and is being continued, for example, in some books from the brilliant Sharon Creech. Now a most promising new voice, Edith Cohn, inherits the mantle of these illustrious predecessors yet makes the genre very much her own.

I do do not mean to be pejorative in describing this book as 'little'. To me it belongs very much to a tradition of US writing for children that I think of as 'backyard' fiction. Such books usually narrate in detail a short period in the everyday life of one or more children, very much centered in their own, often 'ordinary', home and local community. These children play out events which help them come to terms with issues which may be small in the global scale of things, but which are huge and very real to the children themselves. In the hands of such great writers, these stories end up reaching right into the heart of the human condition, resonating with universal significance despite, or perhaps because of, their young protagonists and their domestic scale and setting.

In this very sense Spirit's Key is both a little book and a huge one. What makes it rather distinctive is that, whilst it very much captures the features and qualities just described, it also engagingly teeters on the edge of fantasy. Of course it is just about as far from epic 'full' fantasy it is possible to be. Yet the psychic talents inherited by the protagonist, Spirit, from her 'Greats' (ancestors) and, perhaps more especially, the ghost dogs in whose company she spends much of the tale, have a level of 'reality' in her world rather than than being the simple workings of her imagination. After all the dogs do appear physically to drag a kayak across her island, several people do see rope apparently suspended unsupported in mid air and the fulfillment of Spirit's clairvoyant predictions seems more than mere coincidence. If anything Spirit's Key is perhaps best described as magic realism for children. The result is indeed magical without this in any way detracting from the human relevancy of the story's conflict and resolution; a beautifully balanced and most engaging amalgam.

Within this, there are two things particularly that make this book so special. One is the great sensitivity and ultimate power with which the character of Spirit and her relationships, not least with her dog, Sky, are imagined. The other is the wonderfully vivid creation of the locale, a tiny island community which manages to evoke some sense of the exotic at the same time as epitomising an American small town community. This is peopled with the very entertaining cast of mostly endearing eccentrics usually associated with such places, at least in fiction. Oh, and did I say, this is a book for dog lovers. It's overall messages about the importance of the natural world and all life are strong, clear and enormously important too. My wife always hates stories in which 'the dog dies' but since, in this one, the dog has already died before the story starts perhaps she would be okay with it.

I must admit to generally having a strong antipathy to novels written entirely in the historic present. This seems to have become something of a fashion, particularly amongst writers of adult literary fiction, but I usually find the somehow very pretentious artificiality of this style of writing both intrusive and discomforting. However in this book, where it is indeed used throughout, I surprised myself by thinking it very apt. Here it does indeed help create a very 'in the moment' feel and puts the reader right behind Spirit's eyes, as it were, engendering the strongest and most moving of empathy.

A beautiful story beautifully told. What an exciting prospect for the future Edith Cohen is.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

My quest six months in

Six months or so into this blog seems a good time to reflect on my reading quest thus far. I set out principally to explore a question: are there recent works of children's fantasy fiction that measure up to the undoubted greats of the last half of the twentieth century? This has already been answered with a resounding yes. Sequences like Toby Forward's Flaxfield Quartet and Michelle Paver's Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, together with Philip Reeve's more SF Predator Cities and the Tiffany Aching books from the remarkable Terry Pratchett certainly belong in the canon of great children's literature just as much as the very best of their predecessors. Wonderful writers such as Frances Hardinge and Anne Ursu are, in their different ways, just as significant. There are incredibly promising fantasy sequences underway from Ian Johnstone and Sheila Rance. Across the pond writers like Matthew Jobin, M P Kozlowsky and Paul Durham are emerging as potentially very special. Most exciting of all for me, though, has been to discover such amazingly exciting new talent as Sara Crowe and the quite superb Nigel McDowell. These could truly be the Alan Garners and Ursula le Guins of their generation.

What I must say, without mentioning any names, is that I have also found in my reading a considerable amount of much more derivative, formulaic and sometimes even poor writing, not least from the authors of some series fiction. It seems that it can be quite a task these days to pan out the nuggets from the silt in children's novels as much as in the adult sphere. However, I do not mean to condemn out of hand some of the very popular books that get and keep countless young people reading. In achieving this they do something very important and wonderful. It is just that many have not met my demanding criteria for great children's fiction of the 21st century.

Of course I am not stopping here. You can see from my reading pile that there is much ahead and surely more gems to find. In fact at the moment my pile is rather like a motorway tail back. Stuff joins at a faster rate than it leaves so it gets bigger and bigger. I am sure it will continue to do so; it is all the more exciting (not to say precarious) for it. If anyone out there has suggestions for other 21C children's fantasy you think I should try please tweet @gordonaskew.

One thing I have noticed is that, in order to include all the books that have most thrilled me, my definition has had to broaden from the original concept of 'magic fantasy' with which I started. I am now including virtually anything that is not wholly 'real' (albeit imagined) and will continue to do so. It makes my blog title of 'Magic Fiction Since Potter' not as apt as I thought it was when I started - but what the heck! It seems more important to record all my most exciting finds that to limit myself to some preconceived format.

Another thing is that, for exactly the same reason, I seem to have rather widened my original focus on what I termed children's fiction. I am now also including some of what is more properly these days called YA. Children and young people can, in fact, generally access and enjoy a remarkably wide range of stories when the quality is high enough. Again all to the good, I think. However, I will still steer clear, if I can, of what to me is 'teen' fiction (young romance, with or without swords, sorcery or indeed vampires). That does still fall outside my own area of interest.

So, onward! The pile awaits.





Monday, 6 October 2014

Tall Tales from Pitch End by Nigel McDowell


Although it is some while since my last post I have not completely neglected my quest. It is partly that I have recently had a rather fallow period with my children's fantasy reading where nothing has quite met my criteria for quality. However I have also been refreshing my reading palate with some more adult fare. Much of this has not even related to my fantasy interest, but one read of particular note in this context was Lev Grossman's The Magicians. This is certainly well worth investigating by anyone interested in children's fantasy. Although it is certainly a more adult book than anything covered in this blog, in terms of sexual content as well as length and complexity, it concerns, in a very central way, the continuing pull and potency of fantasy books read in childhood.

However I am now back on song and have several things to write up.

Those of you who have been following my quest will realise that I have come to Nigel McDowell's first novel Tall Tales from Pitch End the wrong way round, as 'twere, having already read his more recent book The Black North (see post from June). But this has proved, in many ways, to be an interesting order, since it has allowed me to explore the antecedent of what I feel is indubitably a masterpiece.

Predictably Tall Tales is not too far from being a masterpiece itself and certainly contains the seeds of greatness. It can perhaps best be described as presenting a somewhat Orwellian (in some ways even Kafkaesque) dystopia with magical elements. Yet behind its small world of inhabitants cowed by an elite of pseudo benevolent 'Elders', exerting self-centred power through indoctrination and fear, surely lurks the shadow of small town, Catholic Ireland at its most stifling. Perhaps there is something of Ireland too in the 'Rebels' who try to oppose them, unsuccessfully until their final remnants, boy protagonist Bruno and his young friends, finally bring the heritage of story and power of imagination into the fray.

And it is the richness and sheer originality of Nigel McDowell's own imagination that is the first great strength of this book and the first great promise of even more to come. Here he so bravely and originally combines his dystopian world with an apparent magic, identified as 'Talent', and the time distorting/controlling power of clockwork. In this idiosyncratic amalgam he bravely defies fantasy cliches and transcends rigid genres. Yes his characters and their relationships are wholly and richly human. His theme of the importance of story and imagination in countering tyranny and oppression is enormously important too.

Similarly, the author's use of language is already remarkable. Even if it does not yet have quite the mould-breaking excitement and power that begins to show in Black North, there are everywhere wonderful felicities of word and phrase. In the very strong action sequences particularly, he develops an eloquent tautness of language that wonderfully creates pace and beautifully conveys both outer and inner conflict. A delightful Irish lilt subtlety underlies much of the writing too.

In the final analysis I find the plotting of this book somehow just a little heavy. It speaks, understandably, of a debut author trying perhaps just a little too hard to produce a novel of significance. It lacks too some of the subtle ambiguity and rich resonances of The Black North. However it remains a most engaging read; the final battle scenes are thrilling and the denouement moving and satisfying without being trite. It is a wonderful book.

Some writers produce one great work but then never really succeed in living up to it. Great writers, however, develop their craft from book to book, continually break new ground and end up making an astounding contribution to literature and to all of our lives. His first two novels are sufficient to promise that Nigel McDowell will be one such.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Sun Catcher / Storm Chaser by Sheila Rance


Another wonderful find and the start of what promises to be a truly great children's fantasy trilogy.

This book will I think, have great appeal for many imaginative older children as well as those in their early teens. It deserves popular success as well as appreciation for the significant literary achievement it is. However it is currently being marketed with a strap line, 'Game of Thrones for a younger audience'. As often with such claims I don't find this particularly helpful in understanding its nature or appreciating it qualities. It certainly is a young persons' version of the 'high fantasy' genre, very common on adult fiction shelves, but Games of Thrones, known best for its complex political plotting and graphic descriptions of physical violence and sex, is certainly not the comparator I would have chosen. Sun Catcher is very special for what it is and surely does not need making out to be something it is not.

It has precedents in children's literature which are perhaps more helpful for giving it a context, even if not for marketing. Although clearly fantasy and not history, the book is reminiscent of the great works of Rosemary Sutcliff in its powerful recreation of past time and place. In its vivid imagining of a fantasy world with strong young protagonists and rather enigmatic magic it recalled for me Diana Wynn Jonse's wonderful Dalemark novels, particularly The Spellcoats. To come much more up to date, it felt to have a number of features in common with Michelle Paver's Chronicles of Ancient Darkness (see previous post), even though it seems aimed at a slightly older audience than her stunningly innovative sequence. All of which is not to imply that Sun Catcher is unduly derivative; it is very much its own book whilst drawing valuably of aspects of children's writing tradition.

Sited as it is within a high fantasy genre, Sun Catcher is not particularly original in concept. Its basic plot, an 'exiled' young protagonist, Maia, discovering that she has supernatural powers and a key role to play in displacing evil rule in her home country, is not particularly innovative. Where the book scores, and scores very highly indeed, is in the vivid imagining of its world and people and the most skilful telling of its story. In short it is a rattling good read.

A great deal of the book's strength comes from its world being imagined within a very richly interesting historical period, the Bronze Age. The author has clearly researched this epoch in some depth and recreated it as a vibrant and vivid milieu for her tale. Drawing further inspiration from this period in different geographical locations she has created rich and diverse fictional communities, including cave-housed cliff dwellers, 'untouchable' inhabitants of a costal stilt village, marsh-living horse breeders, and a band of bow-armed warrior women. To this world she has very skilfully and subtly added a relatively small number of intriguingly enigmatic 'magical' elements, including the large fighting sea lizards of the stilt dwellers, the singing silk woven by Maia's father and the prescient powers of 'The Watcher'. Cleverly, Sheila Rance introduces these without great explanation, presenting them, as they would have been, as part of the accepted everyday experience of her characters.

Another very salient and attractive element of the story comes in the intimate, sometimes almost magical, bond of understanding between a number of the human characters and particular animals. But it is the human characters themselves, particularly, but not exclusively, the younger ones who make the book so special. For they are emphatically not storybook hero-types but very real-feeling human beings. They are uncertain and confused, they get angry, they feel jealous, they make mistakes and wrong choices, they sometimes behave badly. This makes them so much easier to identify with and ultimately so much more likeable and engrossing.

Wisely too, whilst immediately engaging, the author still takes plenty of time in the early part of the book to establish her settings and relationships. She allows us to get to know her principal characters in their 'home' setting. This means that when, almost halfway through, Maia starts to discover her own special powers and leads the cast of characters into a far larger world of terrifying and sometimes violent action, we really care what happens to them.

From that point on the pace of the narrative is breathtaking, intensified by being recounted from diverse character viewpoints. Its ultimate conclusion is all the more potent and poetic for being succinctly encapsulated rather than described in detail. Of course many threads in this magical weave are left dangling; this is the first of a trilogy after all. A most intriguing and promising one it is too.

The recent paperback of this title has been issued with what, to my eyes, is a rather ugly cover, but then others probably know more about marketing such books than I do. Hovever the front is in startling contrast to the outstanding internal illustrations, by the wonderful Geoff Taylor, which capture the character of the story brilliantly. ( )

I sincerely hope that this cover does not prevent the book from attracting the wide and appreciative young readership it deserves. It is much more of a magic historical adventure, Wolf Brother for slightly older children', than it is a 'teen romance'. Although its chief protagonist is a girl in her very early teens, it has at least two young boys in principal roles too, lots of action, deep friendships and cold emnities, but virtually no girl-boy love interest as such. In fact Maia several times makes it clear that she feels unready for such relationships. There is no reason at all why this will not appeal to boys as well as girls; certainly to those of an imaginative disposition, of which there are many.

Sun Catcher inhabits a very familiar genre but totally refreshes it with rich, original imagination and skillful writing. Its character drawing is exceptional and its narrative completely engrossing. It is high fantasy for young readers and great reading for any age. Just as Maia catches the light of the sun so this book catches the power and potency of story. If other parts of the trilogy turn out to be as strong as the first, then this work will be another that deserves a place amongst the greats of children's fantasy.

It is often most difficult to sustain interest in the middle period of an undertaking, be it in life or literature. At one end is the excitement, the enthusiasm of meeting, of starting, of discovering and at the other the satisfaction of resolution, fulfilment (or disappointment) and the poignancy of farewell. If energy is going to flag is perhaps most likely to be in the middle. In trilogy novels too it is often the middle volume that is most likely to meander and to have little apparent purpose beyond filling a gap between the first book and the last, in the story and on the shelf.

Sun Catcher is such an engaging, exciting opening read that it was always going to be difficult to follow. So it is a considerable achievement, and a testament to the rapidly emerging writing talent of Sheila Rance, that Storm Chaser does not disappoint in any way. This particular wonderful beginning now also had a hugely enjoyable middle.

Many of the qualities of Sun Catcher are continued and developed here. The author's prose writing remains lucid and is perhaps even taughter than before. Her many short, strong sentences are relieved with occasional more flowing ones and the effect is both vivid in evocation and compelling in narrative drive. It is often quite beautiful too; writerly craft at its best, deployed in clear but unobtrusive service of its intent.

The Bronze Age based setting continues to be convincingly exploited with its addition of magical elements, like the singing silk, and fantastical ones, like the sea lizards, still intriguingly interwoven. But again it is the many characters, especially the young protagonists, who are the most engagingly developed. The story line sometimes lurches from one dramatic incident to another but this just reinforces the psychological journeys of Maia, Kodo and Razek (the Storm Chaser of the title) who are thrashing about trying to find their true roles in life. Notably, this search extends even after, as in the case of Maia and now Razek, they have discovered their titular identities. They continue to act in convincingly fallible ways, and are all the more endearing for it. In fact, in this book, both Maia and Kodo make misguided choices, causing serious harm to innocent others, an eagle and the young Zena respectively. Their considerable regret and guilt in itself becomes a further catalyst for development.

Other intriguing characters are added too, not least Zena herself, Caspia, the thought stealer, and the 'rat boy', Var. The beautifully drawn Watcher, a character something in the wizard mould, although of course here female, comes more to the fore in this book and looks set to play an even more prominent role in the next. And if the 'evil' characters such as the former queen, Elin, and the Marsh Lord, Helmek, are rather more one-dimensional, this is because they are driven by unalloyed self-interest. Their contribution to the tensions and conflicts of the story is all the more enhanced.

Again it is the gripping narrative that ultimately doninates Storm Chaser. The way Sheila Rance encourages emotional attachment to the several different protagonists and their fates most effectively fuels this. I have not been so totally engrossed in pure story and its telling for some time. In that sense my experience has been reminiscent of a first time reading of The Lord of the Rings.
This book is a triumph in itself and the trilogy an even greater triumph in the making. Inevitably even more is left unresolved at the end of Storm Chaser than was in the first book. Like many readers, I am sure, the child in me is now desperate for the third volume. I have not yet seen any announcement of a title or publication date for the final part, although my best guess is that Kodo will this time be the title character (Silk Finder ?). But I could well be wrong.
(Strangely, in my copy of Storm Chaser, there is a misalignment between illustration and chapter in those just before and after #30. Here each picture seems to relate to the chapter following the one where it is printed. As before the actual illustrations by Geoff Taylor are superb and beautifully capture the mood of the story. However, these mismatches are rather disconcerting. Hopefully they will be corrected in future editions.)

Monday, 11 August 2014

Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver

Neither bestseller status nor significant awards will necessarily qualify works for inclusion in this survey of the best magical fantasy for children written this century. However Michelle Paver's Chronicles of Ancient Darkness sequence (originally published between 2004 and 2009) undoubtedly deserves to be included. It is a most importantly original and compelling achievement.

What this author does so engagingly is take many of the elements of the classic magical fantasy journey - the seeking out and defeating of an evil sorcerer - and relocate them from their usual faux medieval setting to the Stone Age of northern Europe.

Her imaginative recreation of this distant historical world is both accurate and totally convincing. She researches meticulously, making herself familiar with geographical locations as well as archeological evidence, and it shows. Yet her detailed background knowledge is not obtrusive. She simply creates landscapes, people and lifestyles that are vivid and completely engrossing. So immersed is she in this distant past that as a reader you are brought closer to the life of our early ancestors than you would have thought possible. Of course this is helped, too, by writing of high technical skill that transports you simply and directly to the heart of her vivid imaginings.

However, despite all its historical accuracies the world this author creates is a fantasy one; magic and spells, shape-shifting and demons are not just features of the belief systems of its people but are a very real part of their lives. Here the wizards of other fantasies become the mages and shamans of the hunter-gatherer clans and a world that already has much of darkness about it becomes darker still through the all-pervading influence of their magic. For in this book magicians, here the 'Soul-Eaters', are essentially evil and provide the adversaries for its protagonist, the young Torak. However Chronicles is not altogether as simple as this. It is a long, rich and deep narrative, with many twists in both events and characters. The ambiguity in nature of some of the mages, together with the complexity of other characters, not least Torak himself, provides much of the power of this engrossing tale.

Michelle Paver cleverly introduces two other key elements too, particularly potent perhaps for a young audience. These add further intensity and involvement to her story. She clearly has herself a great affinity with animals and uses introduces friendship between humans and animals, particularly between Torak and his 'wolf brother', as a key element. She can get right inside the mind of an animal such as Wolf and imagine how it feels very convincingly, even giving the creature's thoughts a language that seems absolutely right. As a writer she also knows just how to tug at heart strings, to stretch them to agonising breaking point and indeed sometimes to snap them. Like many of the best stories of human/animal relationships this one is both heartwarming and heart wrenching. However, she also introduces and exploits human friendship, together with all its aspects, warmth, loyalty, jealousy, betrayal and loss. Indeed Torak's friendship with a girl contemporary, Renn, is one of the most central relationships in the book, although it is far from the only one. Michelle Paver is a rare author who can create a wide range of characters convincingly, male and female, human and animal, good and evil - and all with as many complexities, ambiguities and confusions as in real life.

Although it is six books long, Chronicles is very much a sequence and not a series. It tells one overarching narrative, albeit in many interweaving episodes. It is essentially a human journey - a journey to defeat evil, but also the journey of Torak's gradual growth into the person he has the potential to be. And if this is a somewhat unoriginal theme for fiction, then that is only because life is in this sense unorinigal. The journey is the same for all people, in all places and through all times. It is the telling of this universal story which needs to be original and compelling, and this is both.

Chronicles is a more easily accessible work for children than many of the others I have so far identified as all time greats and it is aimed at a slightly younger audience than some of them. My quest here is not primarily about finding follow-on recommendations for young readers who have enjoyed Harry Potter. However if it were, Michelle Paver's wonderful sequence would come up as a very strong contender. This does not, of course, prevent it from being a hugely enjoyable and indeed enriching read for any older age too. In awakening, as it does so thrillingly, its 'ancient darkness' it reawakens in all of us a potent magic which lurks deep within our humanity as well as our history.



I am currently reading this author's more recent sequence, Gods and Warriors, the third volume of which is just out, and hope to write about it soon.




Sunday, 3 August 2014

The Flaxfield (Dragonborn) Quartet by Toby Forward

Apart from its first volume, Dragonborn, being longlisted for the Carnegie Medal in 2012, the UK publication on Toby Forward's Flaxfield Quartet seems to have sneaked under the radar in terms of high profile recognition. It is now being published in the US, as the Dragonborn Quartet. The first two books, Dragonborn and Fireborn are already out, Doubleborn is due in Feb. 2015 and presumably the last, Starborn, will follow. I sincerely hope that this outing will bring it the attention and appreciation it deserves because it is very possibly the greatest work of children's fantasy so far written this century.

Perhaps one of the reasons that it has not yet made a bigger impact is that it is not an altogether easy read for children. Like many great works of literature it requires work and commitment to begin to unpeel its many layers, subtleties and complexities. As a quartet, of course, it is also relatively long but does need to be read in its entirety; it is a classic example of a whole being more than the sum of its parts. Those children who can read it though, and I know many do have that needed sophistication and sensitivity, will find it an enormously enriching and life enhancing experience.

This is mature, refined writing, concentrated in both language and content. That is to say it is deceptively simple; a maximum of thought and feeling conveyed in a minimum of words.

Toby Forward sets down a marker in the very opening of the first book:

'Flaxfield died on a Friday which was a shame, because he always ate a trout for dinner on a Friday, and it was his favourite.'

In essence this is the heart of the book and the paradigm of its writing style. The language is often terse and enigmatic, most particularly the dialogue. Direct speech is sometimes not specifically attributed. Different speakers follow their own thought lines and do not necessarily respond directly to questions asked or statements just made. What is presented is often an essence of dialogue, reflecting thoughts and feelings as much as communication. Questions are often answered with questions, but then, in this world, that is the wizards' way.

Similarly the author often does not directly explain situations or actions, but leaves the reader to infer what is happening. It is a writing style reminiscent of other great but demanding works. It put me in mind of Alan Garner, in, say, The Owl Service, or The Stone Book Quartet, and even more of Ursula le Guin in the wonderful Earthsea sequels, Tehanu and The Other Wind. It is fine writing, but not easy. This is further complicated by frequent shifts of narrative perspective and jumps in time, backwards as well as forwards, that are not always explicitly telegraphed, leaving the reader again to do the work.

However the positive of all of this is continually to add layer upon layer of richness, complexity of both character and narrative, over considerable time, and gradually to build up recognition and understanding for the reader. Sometimes the same stories iterate, told in different contexts or by different characters, but each time adding new perspectives on the complex world Toby Forward has created.

This is in many ways a classic magical fantasy, a world of wizards and their apprentices (yes, there a quite a few of each, although not all of the same generation), of dragons, of a university of magic (though not remotely like Hogwarts) and of the growing threat of an unspeakably perverted magic. Yet within this framework the author reimagines a whole original world and creates a completely new and credible mythology of what magic is, how it began, how it becomes perverted and abused and how it can be redeemed and renewed. It is a staggering achievement.

The first book follows very much from its opening statement and explores primarily how Flaxfield's apprentice Sam deals with the consequences of his master's death and the escalation of evil that this allows.

The second volume is essentially one long flashback and tells, amongst other things, the story of Bee whose apprenticeship to a different wizard precipitates the act of horrendous wrong that corrupts magic and releases its negative 'wild' form into the world. However she herself is not responsible in any way and, in fact, the consequences for her are amongst the most shattering and moving in the whole work. This is the volume too in which Flaxfield himself features, together with an earlier apprentice nicknamed Cabbage, for, or course, these events precede the older wizard's death.

Yet this is emphatically volume two in reading sequence and not a prequel or volume one written out of order. Already knowing what will happen as a consequence is a powerful element in the reading of this sequence. Presenting narrative information in this retrospective way is a significant feature of how Toby Forward so cleverly and gradually builds up layers of understanding in relation to the complex mythology he is creating.

Two other strong elements are also very notable in this volume. One is the author's ability to build up horror. Although his imaginative creation of hideous evil creatures, the kravvins and takkabakks, is genuinely dreadful, it is his use of swarms of beetles to represent the spread of the evil magic that truly makes the skin creep and remains long in the mind. I am sure many readers will never be able to look at these creatures in quite the same way again.

The other strong feature is the quiet but pervasive sense of humour that permeates the books. This is not Terry Pratchett; it is completely other. Yet it is a welcome relief from the intensity of the writing to sometimes unearth its quiet, even childish, jokes. For example the apprentice Cabbage is too embarrassed to ever explain his nickname - and with good reason.


Book three, similarly, tells the story of one character without neglecting all the other strands. This time it is Tamrind (Tam) a rather chippy girl, briefly met at the wizard school in the opening volume. This is however also a book that makes connections, as the revelations of the second part throw light on the first. We reencounter characters coloured by a more extended palate of events and experiences and Sam, the late Flaxfield , his 'partner' Flaxfold, the smith and his daughter, the damaged individual who was Bee and other former apprentices all add rich and significant strands to the tapestry of the tale. Their adversaries too, Ash and her cronies, together with the abominable Smedge, are all the more terrifying now that we know more about their backstory and the origins of the hideous wild magic they wield. Central to these connections is the developing relationship between Sam and Tam, their place in the creation of magic and their role in the battle to remedy its corruption. In fact much comes to a cataclysmic head towards the end of this book, but with devastating consequences for the wizards. As yet a crucial figure is missing from the cast of characters needed to resolve the central conflict of the story.

Through all these books Toby Forward has added another dimension, quite literally, to his landscape, the 'Deep World' with its diminutive inhabitants 'roffles'. Owing much to legends and stories found in many places, these small folk clearly relate to the 'hidden people' or 'little people' and, indeed, share this origin with hobbits. Like all this author's creations though they are reimagined in an entertainingly unique way. And it is a roffle, Tadpole, who centrally features in this final volume. Tadpole is and represents the innocent, the child; he just wants to visits 'up top' for long enough to see the stars. Yet, although no hobbit, he does share something of the sprit of the Frodo who says, 'I will take the ring, but I do not know the way.' It is he who leads this complex story to a devastating conclusion that is no conclusion at all.

Sophisticated readers in pre and early teens will lap up this magnificent fantasy quartet. But it has much to offer others too. Flaxfield is a late quartet: Beethoven, Janacek, Faure. It is fiction for the elderly as well as for the young; for the 13-year-old with greying hair. It draws on many precursors, but is completely itself. It has many themes. It treats with death, and life. It is about heritage and the responsibility for passing it on. It is about being chosen to do things, not doing what we choose. It is about monumental conflict and the terrible cost of victory. It is about hope and the future. It is humane and wise. It is enthralling. It is lyrical. It is sometimes heartrending, but always beautiful. It is ultimately consoling. It is magical. It is a masterpiece.


Saturday, 19 July 2014

The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham

This is a hugely entertaining and engaging fantasy from a most promising debut US author.
Mapped world

Paul Durham creates a self-contained and relatively small scale fantasy word centered around a 'medieval'-feeling small town which he calls Drowning. So far this is fairly conventional. There is even the usual hand-drawn picture map, although I have to say that I actually found this one more helpful in following and locating incidents from the story than is often the case. The author's naming of locations shows some originality and wit and avoids the annoyingly obscure and unpronounceable. There is an entertaining glossary too, of 'Drowning Mouth Speak', that adds nicely to the character and atmosphere of the place.
Original imagination

Built on this is much that it even more inventive and original, which begins to place this book well above the general run of somewhat tired post-Rowling children's fantasy. I am delighted to say that there are no orphans here (each of the main child characters appears to have at least one parent), no portals to another world and, best of all, no prophesy to be fulfilled. What there is instead is a relatively complex set of interactions between the villagers, its 'feudal' lord and his soldiers, and a horde of truly hideous and threatening monsters, the Bog Noblins. Added to these are a very intriguing, mysterious and probably morally rather dubious band of monster-fighters, the Luck Uglies - if indeed they exist! It all makes for an exciting romp with a good many mysteries to unravel and, of course, a group of likeable children to do it.
Strong girl lead

Rye, the book's protagonist, is in many ways a very modern girl. Much of her thought and speech is woven through with language and ideas that have a distinctly contemporary feel. Were this a historical novel then these would be anachronistic and a problem. But this is not a history, it is a fantasy and makes its own rules and realities. Paul Durham cleverly succeeds in merging these modern elements and the fantasy 'medieval' setting in a way that will help the book's intended young readers identify with the characters and cope with the deliberate and intriguing strangeness of its world. How much better, in fact, that Rye and her friends speak something close to the language of the readers than had the author misguidedly opted for some form of phoney 'olde worlde' talk. It also means he can throw in quite a few good, incongruously jokey passages too. I particularly enjoyed baby sister Lottie being potty trained using the Drowning village equivalent of marbles in a jar.
Great characters aplenty 

In fact it is the sympathetic nature of Rye and her young friends, together with other characters such as her mother and sister, that makes the story so engaging - and the threats they face so frightening. Further, Paul Durham peoples his relatively small fantasy world with a very rich and diverse range of largely original characters, both human, animal and other. Many of these are strengthened by a fair degree of complexity and ambiguity. Even though the lord of the manor, Longchance, is as cartoon evil as they come (think Sheriff of Nottingham), other characters are, interestingly, often neither wholly good nor wholly bad. Indeed it is the unknown and possibly unknowable qualities of the Luck Uglies, the monsterous Bog Noblins, and the principal adult character, (who Rye calls Harmless) that give the book much of its originality and strength. And at the heart of everything lies the intriguing development of Rye's relationship with Harmless. But no more of that; no spoilers here.
More to come

Other potentially very interesting minor characters are introduced and not fully developed in this book, but then it is clearly conceived as the first of a sequence, so hopefully there is more of these characters to come. Other elements of the storyline remain intriguingly unresolved too. However the circular structure of the narrative, ending where it began on the rooftops of Drowning, but with Rye having moved on so much as a person, is very satisfying. I do hope, though, that the author is going to develop this work into a well-shaped trilogy or quartet and not let it degenerate into a sprawling, repetitive series instead. The characters and ideas here deserve better.
Ultimately this is a great start, well worth anyone's read and will, I am confident, delight and enthrall countless children. It seems to flag up a writer of considerable potential. He may well produce even greater in time.


Since I wrote this post, the trilogy has been completed, and is as rounded and well-developed as could be wished. The outstanding qualities of the first book have been fully maintained. Indeed they have been delightfully extended, and this whole sequence is highly recommendable. Well worth seeking out for 9-12 readers. 

Friday, 18 July 2014

The Dyerville Tales by M. P. Kozlowsky

At last. Another wonderful book by a US author.

Now don't get me wrong. I love America and the rich heritage of American literature. I think some of the greatest works of children's literature ('period') have been written in the US. Amongst others, wonderful writers such as Katherine Patterson, Betsy Byars and Lois Lowry come immediately to mind, not to mention Anne Ursu, who I have just discovered. And then there is ,in my view, the greatest of all, Ursula Le Guin. No. But I have to say that in recent years the States seem to be publishing enormous piles of decidedly third-rate children's fantasy: usually series fiction (I have come to rather dread seeing #1, #2, #37, etc. after a title) and mostly of the ordinary-kids-find-some-random-portal-and travel-to-a-fantasy-world-to-fulfill-a-prophesy-and-save-the-world-from-unspeakable-evil variety. I keep picking them up, more in hope than expectation as they say. But so far many have been very disappointing. Of course I have spent my entire career trying to get children to read and if these books start kids reading and keep them reading, as many of them clearly do, then they are are very good thing. But that does not mean I want to include them as finds in this quest for twenty first century greats. (I am excepting Rick Riorden, by the way ,and will probably write about him at some later time.)

But The Dyerville Tales is something quite different and in its way very special. It fully deserves its place in the canon of notable children's literature.

It is essentially a story within a story. The framing narrative concerns a boy named Vincent who runs off from an orphanage to find his way across country and attend his grandfather's funeral. His big dream is that he is not really an orphan and will find his missing father there too. He is given a book, purportedly his grandfather's life story, which he reads on the way. The inner narrative, the content of the book, is a fairy tale adventure in which a boy, also called Vincent, pursues a quest to kill an evil witch and free those she has enchanted.

I have been trying to pinpoint just why this book feels so special. It belongs, in many ways, to a strong tradition of US children's fiction dealing sensitively with kids who don't have the easiest of lives, but who fight through with considerable feistiness. Superficially it is not hugely original. Stories of supposed orphans on quests for lost parents abound. The device of one narrative framed within another is not uncommon, nor is the notion of reworking fairy tales, or even of using them as metaphors for real life (for example in Anne Ursu's brilliant Breadcrumbs).

However, where The Deryville Tales scores so highly and makes such a remarkable impact is that it is quite wonderfully written. The first thing to strike (and to continue to delight throughout ) is that its use of language is rich, evocative and, at its best (which it often is) simply beautiful; prose of remarkable refinement and writerly skill. Make no mistake, this is literary language. Right from the start, when Vincent is described as, 'he of the fair skin and the sad eyes, the disheveled hair and the honest smile,' we know that we are in the world of book language, not the vernacular. But children sometimes need to be extended in the style and usage they meet. More than this though, this book is a story and is about story, and that is where its language takes and hold us. It is lyrical and evocative, creating pictures in the mind and washing the reading ear with waves and eddies of mellifluous sound.

Even more cleverly, this is never at the expense of narrative flow. This is no nineteenth century wallow in fancy words. In fact the pace of the storytelling is quick. In the inner narrative particularly (but in the framing one too) the story is essentially incident driven, fully reflecting the fairy tale genre. It romps from one crisis to the next. This strand does not retell one particular fairy tale nor, in fact, does it draw its characters and situations from this genre alone but from a whole range of story sources including myths and legends from various traditions. Thrown into the amalgam here are elements of Odysseus and the Cyclops, Duke Blubeard's castle and Baba Yaga's hut on chicken legs, amongst many others. In fact adult readers may particularly enjoy spotting sources, even if some of these bypass its younger audience. The excitement piles, page by page, and the fact that it is not a completely known story, despite its very familiar characters and motifs, gives it a driving momentum. This is reflected too in the framing story and, of course, the fact that the narrative strands alternate adds further page-turning impetus. Even more than this, however, what makes both narratives so engaging is the sensitivity, and indeed humanity, with which the protagonists and their responses to each situation are drawn. Despite the excitement and speed of the action we are led to feel every moment with the two Vincents. There is reflection too, quietness and pathos. And if, as for example in the scene between the grandson Vincent and the artist on the train, the writing sometimes comes close to sentimentality, it always keeps just the right side of the line and ends up as genuinely affecting instead.

Perhaps the most interesting question is just how much this book is a fantasy at all - but then that is, I think, its point. For, although the inner narrative of grandfather Vincent is indubitably fantasy in itself, it is for almost all of the book presented as nothing more than a story. Unlike, say, Inkheart, the characters do not step out of the tale and inpinge on the real world, nor does grandson Vincent actually leave his own world and enter the fantasy one. Yet it is made clear that his imaginative absorption in his grandfather's tale is such that he does vicariously enter its world. This is reinforced by both grandfather and grandson sharing the same name. Sometimes we lose track, as does he, of which Vincent's experiences we are sharing. There are times, too, when the two worlds begin to draw together. The criminal family in the real world feel very like fairy tale characters; grandfather Vincent's relationship with Sarah feels very real. Only at the very end of the book do the two narrative strands, and with them reality and story, actually merge. (Not wishing to be involved in spoilers, I will not say how.)

But then the whole book is a story; its language has reminded us of that from the start. It is a dream, Vincent's dream, every child's dream, the dream of all of us: to be a hero battling through any difficulties to make everything all right for those we love, for the whole world, for ourselves. In real life it generally doesn't work out quite this way. In life it is not real. Here it is not real. It is a story. It does not need to be true, because it is.

If I still had a class of nine, ten or eleven year-olds I would be desperate to read this aloud to them. It would enthrall and delight them - and teach them so much about language and about story too, without me saying a word.

I must add this author's slightly earlier Juniper Berry (2011), which I have so far missed, to my reading pile straight away.



Thursday, 10 July 2014

The New Policeman by Kate Thompson

The purpose of this blog is not primarily to review new books but to record my reading quest for great works of children's fantasy fiction written since the turn of the century. This being so, Kate Thompson's The New Policeman (2005), and it's follow-up, The Last of the High Kings (2007), fully merit inclusion. My recent, albeit belated, discovery of these simple, almost delicate, yet rich, thought-provoking and strangely moving tales has been a delight. The first volume was, of course, much praised and won deserved awards at the time, but I have not seen the later book recognised to quite the same extent. Yet is is also a very special and unique achievement.
Although each book is to a large extent stand-alone, they are linked in that at the heart of each is a fantasy interplay between rural Ireland and the mythological world of Tir na n'Og, The Land of (Eternal) Youth, with its 'fairy' inhabitants, the Sidhe.
The books are in many senses slight by fantasy norms; they revolve around the members of a single farming family, the Liddys, together with a few other locals. In the 'other' world of Tir na n'Og too only one or two main characters and a handful of supporting cast really feature significantly. The books are comparatively short and the writing deceptive simple and straightforward, although, of course, belying considerable authorial skill. Chapters are short too, giving the narrative a quick, light and airy feel, but one which readily entrances and soon engages most beguilingly.
The first volume,The New a Policeman, is essentially a portal fantasy with its hero JJ entering Tir na n'Og through the underground chamber of a 'fairy ring' part way through the story and returning near the end. The characters of the 'real' world are sympathetically drawn and the emphasis on their involvement with traditional Irish music and dance, together with the longstanding opposition of the old Catholic Church paint a vivid and engaging picture of a corner of rural Ireland. The treatment of Tir na n'Og is also relatively light, witty and almost tongue-in-cheek. However it does become deeper as the story develops and is sometimes very moving. JJ playing for the Sidhe warriors lost in the great fairy war is beautifully described and deeply touching.
The book is in part an exploration of time and the implications of mortality/immortality. It, importantly, creates its own credible and indeed though-provoking logic within its fantasy conceit. However more than anything it is a pean to Ireland's traditional music, to its roots not only in history but in the depths of its mythologies, and by implication to all rich and identity-defining tradition. It is an unusual and enchanting book.
The second work of the trilogy The Last of the High Kings is something rather different, whilst still drawing continuity from setting, themes and some of its characters. It is if anything even more engaging than the first. This time the story is not really a portal fantasy at all, but much more of a 'dual world' one, where the real world and the fantasy exist in parallel with the latter occasionally impinging on the former. In fact, although the story very largely plays out in the 'real' Ireland this blurring of the edges of the realities cannot help but happen as the principal character emerges to be a changeling child, a member of the Sidhe farmed out to be brought up in the world of time.
In this second volume JJ, the hero of the first, has moved into adulthood and it is his somewhat anarchic family, bearing some passing resemblance to that of 'Outnumbered', who are at the centre of the tale. The characters and their relationships are most tellingly drawn, not least JJ's rather selfish inclination to put his commitment to his own considerable musical talents before the needs of his family. There is both humour and human understanding displayed in the telling of this tale and Jenny, the changeling child, for who freedom and irresponsibility are paramount, is a truly enchanting and endearing creation. For much of the story she epitomises a lack of restraint and responsibility that many of us will secretly admire, even if we would never actually emulate it. Although themes of time and Irish music both carry forward into this story, this is most essentially about freedom and responsibility, responsibility both for each other and for our world. And it is Jenny's journey into understanding and her accepting at least a degree of responsibility for others which is touchingly at its heart . Although unusual for a fantasy it is a most endearing book that will endure long in memory.
The author did write a third book in 2009, The White Horse Trick, to complete this as a trilogy, but sadly this does not match the quality of the first two. She clearly was very concerned at the time with issues of global warming. There is of course nothing wrong in being so, but here her treatment of the theme seems very heavy handed. Although there are some entertaining interplays between the Sidhe of Tir na n'Og and a distopian future Ireland there is too much in the book that sounds like rather pious preaching for it to make an engaging conclusion.
Were the whole as good as the first two, this trilogy would go straight onto my 'greats' list, but as it is the first two books are fully original and engaging enough to be well worth reading.