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.

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

 
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.

 

Footnote:

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.