I am delighted. Even in the couple of months that I have been pursuing my search for high quality children's fantasy from this century, I have found several remarkable books and a couple of great ones. What I notice though, looking back on my posts so far, is that hardly any of them have been what I would describe as classic fantasy. Those that have been great have mostly lain on the fringes of the fantasy genre, or been significant reinterpretations of it. Those that I have read that have been quite clearly fantasies have, frankly, not been great. And I have read or part read a good few of these. (I was brought up to think I should finish a book once I had started it, in much the same way as I had to finish the food on my plate. Consequently I have tended, through life, to feel I was doing a 'bad thing' if I abandoned a book part way through. But now I am much older I have reached a stage where I am just not prepared to spend precious time on something not worth reading - and am finally confident in my ability to know when this is.)
At the moment the market seems flooded with what I consider third-rate children's fantasies - endless tales of 'ordinary' kids (often orphans) discovering random 'powers' and charging off through random portals (often with cute if somewhat weird pets at their heels) into cliche-ridden fantastic realms to defeat super- baddies and save the world (often repeating the process through many numbered sequels). In all this, too, what often bugs me the most is the 'prophesy' (often written in gruesome doggerel) a tired and lazy mechanism for justifying the whole shenanigans. It may have worked for C.S.Lewis, but can it stand its 200th regurgitation?
All this is a preamble to saying that - yes!, wonderful, amazing, get-out-the-bunting-and-let's have a party - I have now found a truly exciting new fantasy that keeps many of the feature of this genre, draws on its traditions and heritage, yet avoids all sense of cliche, bringing instead an incredible freshness of imaginative word-building and a rich, complex and compelling narrative. Ian Johnstone's The Bell Between Worlds is the outstanding first volume of a promised fantasy sequence, The Mirror Chronicles - and in the context of my introductory comments, outstanding is exactly the right word for it.
The work is very much a 'portal' fantasy with its protagonist drawn from his own 'real' world into 'The Other', after being summoned by the huge, mysterious bell of the title. However, an initial realisation that its opening involves a boy sent, after his mother's death, to live with his uncle in a ramshackle old building and then finding his way into this alternative world could superficially suggest that the author has fallen into just the cliches complained of earlier. Yet the way with which even this first section is handled by the author lifts it well above this: the rich imagining and engrossing drawing of that initial location, Gabbety Row, the sensitive and subtle introduction of Sylas as well as other intriguing characters, and such telling details as the making and decorating of the kites. The writer uses convention to root the story in the fantasy tradition, but, more significantly, nothing is gratuitous, despite possible first impressions, and all the elements introduced at the beginning will be seen to have considerable significance as the story develops.
And once Sylas enters The Other, then this book really begins to unfold in all its rich length and depth. This is truly a tale in which to become engrossed, a world to experience and discover alongside the enormously empathetic protagonist. A huge diversity of characters, societies, landscapes and narrative details are all most creatively imagined here. It is described with language that is rich and evocative without ever being 'purple' or self-regarding. The world emerges as a large and complex one, as is the narrative. It is epic stuff. There are wild excitements too as well as lyrical beauty, the genuine menace of growing evil, and a truly helter-skelter excitement leading to the devastating climax of this first volume.
It is ideas too, though, that make this such a good book. Many of the characters are neither as purely good or bad as often in this genre, they are complex, interesting and 'human', despite their fantasy-world existence. And the underlying concept of the mirror world is as engaging and thought-provoking as, say, Pullman's Dark Materials, though raising philosophical and psychological questions rather than the religious (or anti-religious) connotations of the latter. Sylas's gradual recognition of, and ultimate conjoining with, his 'mirror self' is as poignant as anything in recent children's fiction. This book is many things, exciting, disturbing, lyrical, frightening and hugely imaginative, but it is ultimately warm and deep in its humanity.
This is certainly the best 'classic' fantasy I have come across so far from the last 14 years. If the trilogy (?) lives up to its opener then it could well prove to be one of the greats of any period.