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.