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. (http://www.geofftaylor-artist.com/galleries/illustrations/author/title/Sun%20Catcher )