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.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen

 
If I had read this remarkable YA novel just a couple of weeks earlier I would have included it in my top books of 2015. (See post from earlier in Dec.)
 
One of the things I have tried to demonstrate throughout this blog is that the best writing for children and young people is very fine writing indeed. These books often shown staggering authorial imagination and originality. They can, and often do, treat with matters of both deep personal significance and profound universal resonance, touching very closely on what it means to be a human being. They demonstrate how effectively our language can, in the right hands, be used to explore and communicate all this. They can, in short, constitute great literature. Great, that is, not after making some patronising allowance for the fact that they are children's books ('As good as can be expected considering . . .' ) No. Great in any terms. Great literature, period. They are books which deserve recognition as such, even if they all too rarely get it.
 
Here is another such fine piece of writing.
 
Beastkeeper belongs to a well established and very special tradition in children's and young adult fantasy that might be termed 'invasive fairytale.'. This is one where contemporary kids, usually ones experiencing issues, find their lives blending with or melding into situations from traditional tales. Theirs is generally not the situation of passing through some Narnia wardrobe portal into a fantasy world and later returning. Rather it is about them 'magically' living through, even becoming their own metaphor. In this Beastkeeper is the noble progeny of the likes of The Owl Service. This Alan Garner masterpiece is still one of the most wonderful examples of the sub genre, although a far from easy read; a perfect example of young adult fiction as truly great literature. In more recent terms, Beastkeeper is a cousin of Anne Ursu's devastating Breadcrumbs, and perhaps an older sibling of Karen Foxlee's memorable Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy. It would be tempting to refer to such books as a kind of magical realism, except that they have very little to do with Latin American writing for adults and everything to do with a children's literature tradition in its own right.
 
However Beastkeeper is in no way an unoriginal book. It is not even heavily derivative of the Beauty and the Beast story to which it very loosely relates. When fourteen year old Sarah finds herself having to cope with the breakup of her parents, followed closely by the breakdown of her father, she finds herself dumped in a world that is more fairytale than reality. However her voice is and remains highly credible as that of a contemporary teenager; it draws us quickly and immersively into her story. And that story is one where very little develops as expected. This author breaks the mould of the traditional tale more often than she borrows from it, and sets up multiple twists and shocks. There are times even when the narrative is deeply disturbing, but still it holds us and will not let go. Characters are as complex and ambivalent as the plot line itself and even the boy Alan, who appears initially as a comparatively straightforward 'love interest', soon shows his strange and magical character and ends up as the focus of considerable tension. Increasingly Sarah's, and the reader's, involvement in the fantasy world becomes more intense. Her attempt to return to her earlier reality is abortive, and the enigmatic ending is, strangely, disturbing at the same time as it is comforting.
 
The real pinnacle of fiction is achieved when great story becomes fine literature, without ceasing to be great story. This applies in no small measure to Beastkeeper. The author is not only a fine storyteller but a master of language, and she melds both skills here to stunning effect. Whereas Alan Garner's prose was terse, almost bleak, in The Owl Service, Cat Hellisen's great linguistic talent is the metaphor and her strong and often startling images give her prose an almost poetic edge without ever losing touch with the excitement of the narrative flow. At its best, her language thrills with an invigorating shower of word painting which enhances perfectly her amalgam of contemporary and magical reality.
 
'There was a long silence, drawn out and stretched like a strand of bubblegum. Sarah tiptoed along the landing toward her parents’ room and wondered what flavor silence was, and if it grew hard and brittle if you threw it away, or if people sometimes stepped on wads of discarded silence and it stuck to the soles of their shoes and made their footfalls softer.

She stepped on the silences, and padded fox-quiet.'

Delicious.
 
This is literature. Fine literature.
 
Whilst story is vitally important, it can be accessed through a variety of media. Literature, in contrast, is necessarily a written form. It is the art of using written language to communicate depths and subtleties of experience, in this case through story. It is therefore more than simple story. It is story double plus.
 
There is an important message here, I think, for all concerned with helping young people become readers, for parents, carers, teachers, librarians, et al.

To engender enjoyment of story is a paramount aim, but on top of this we also need to help young people find their way through to quality literature. Some will, of course, discover it for themselves, but many will need our help. This means sharing our own enthusiasms for children's literature which goes beyond the simple enjoyment of story, beyond the highly popular comedies, adventures and romances which often top the best seller charts. Sometimes it means helping them into 'the classics', but there are also many contemporary children's and YA novels that more than qualify as literature. They do not require their readers to abandon the excitement and entertainment of story; like Beastkeeper, they just add more layers to it. We owe it to our children to seek out such books and share them. Literature has so much to offer our young people, and the world. It is a big part of what makes us human - and perhaps humane.

 

Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Waking World (The Future King Book 1) by Tom Huddleston

 

Here is a mystery. But not the intriguing sort. The baffling sort. The frustrating sort. Indeed the infuriating sort.

The Waking World is a very accomplished and highly exciting debut from a clearly most talented young writer. It is blatantly intended as the opening book of a sequence, The Future King. It was published as a handsome hardback volume, obviously (and justifiably) valued by its publisher, back in 2013. I first read it then and have since been looking out eagerly for the next part. Yet the rest of it seems to have melted into air, been stolen away from fairyland, or, angels and ministers of grace defend us, come to dust. (Excuse the mixed bardaphores.) What is going on here?

Over the years there have been many fine children's and young adult novels reworking the story of King Arthur, some developing the legend, others trying to reconstruct a putative history of the warlord who may have led resistance to the Saxons in post Roman, 'Dark Age' Britain. (See my discussion in Oct '15 of Philip Reeve's Here Lies Arthur.) It is such an archetypal story that it provides wonderfully fertile ground for fiction. And now Tom Huddleston has conceived this story anew through the reinvigorating leap of focusing on the future element of 'the once and future king'.

His reimagining is set around 1000 years into our future, in a world not so much post apocalyptic as post climactalyptic. Here is a society that has reverted to another dark age following the literally devastating effects of climate change. Of course this is not in itself a particularly original concept, but Tom Huddleston's realisation of this world is imagined with wonderfully convincing and compelling vigour. Here is a north of England shrunk drastically by higher sea levels and dotted with battened-down, subterranean farmsteads whose names, like so many other aspects of broadly 'Iron Age' society, carry distorted but pervasive memories of their earlier incarnations. Within this context are introduced some key 'Arthurian' tropes, a boy destined to be King (here called Aran), an enigmatic mentor (Perigrine) and the very real terror of raids from malevolent and vicious invaders (here referred to as the Marauders). However, as yet, these only carry with them hints of the original myth, subtly and intriguingly introduced; this is no slavish retelling, far from it.

A good part of the author's success in so effectively conjouring this world comes from a skill in the use of language that is frankly astonishing in a debut novel. Tom Huddleston's descriptions are vivid and fresh minted without ever being florid or 'purple'. He has clearly imagined himself right inside this world and he makes us see and feel it too. He has a way with prose building too which is quite delightful too; his phrases and sentences varied and balanced. They communicate strongly whilst beguiling the reading ear with mellifluous dances. When I was still teaching children to write I loved to share with them models of writing worthy of emulation, as I firmly believe the only way to learn to write well is to read well. Had I The Waking World to hand then I would certainly have read passages aloud for inspiration, not least some wonderful sections from Chapter 15 when Aran's 'magician' tutor first bring him to the forest.

However Tom Huddleston's reimagining of this apprenticeship is worlds away from The Sword in the Stone, as told by either T H White or Walt Disney. The early parts of the book feel much more like Bernard Cornwell for a younger audience and build to a most exciting early climax when the Marauders unexpectedly raid a large market/fair gathering to devastating effect. The middle section of the book explores more quietly the relationship between the young Aran and two friends, a feisty girl and a gentler, more reflective second boy. Again this is an almost classic grouping, but these characters are, like most in this book, richly and credibly drawn. They lift off the page and draw the readers into committed identification. The various, at this stage rather childish, adventures of this trio entertain and delight, providing a more relaxed interlude before the narrative again winds up to thrilling tensions.

Once Perigrine takes Aran to his special island, however, the novel lurches most excitingly into yet other world, where at least hints of the magic and esoteric knowledge of the original legends begin to make their presence felt. From this point on the narrative wakes as a veritable serpent and twists and turns surprisingly, intriguingly, and ultimately shockingly. We have a master storyteller at work.

At the heart this fiction is, of course, the classic tale of a boys awakening to his own potential and hence to his destiny. But its telling is fresh and vivid altogether remarkable.This book may come to a relatively cosy, short-term resolution, one based on what is for its relatively young audience (and perhaps for our immediate time) one of the most important of messages, that violence only begets violence. However it opens more doors than it closes. Not only is Aran awakening to his own role as King, not only are all involved awakening to the possible reality of magic, but both their world and the author's fiction are awakening to a future where their past, our present, is insinuating itself back into the narrative in startling ways. This time confusion, introduced at first through only the subtlest of hints, has by the end of the book become crucial. The future of this future king is both intriguing and disturbing. It is not quite the story we expected it to be, and its anticipated development, so skilfully set up. will, we feel, be more different yet. As readers we are left with more questions than answers. We are also left with a desperate need to explore them. The end of this first book may not literally leave its hero's nails scrabbling for purchase at the brink of a precipice, but it is no less of a cliffhanger for that. The final sentence of the narrative is 'What next?' It is equally the abiding thought in the reader's mind.

This debut is a triumph. It has an original and intruguing concept with a fascinating twist on a potent legend; it has masterly use of language that enchants the 'reading ear' and conjours vivid pictures for the 'imagining eye'; it has a compelling storyline that engages both mind and emotions, jolting both characters and reader from one understanding of this world into something quite other; it has rich protagonists who attract enormous empathy and characters with deep complexity and moral ambiguity; what more is there to ask?

The answer to that returns me to my opening issue. Because what more there is to ask is the rest of the sequence. This first book may be a triumph, but it also holds the most intriguing of promise that what is yet to come will constitute an even greater whole. The Waking World cries out for a paperback format so that it can reach a much larger audience. It needs wider publication, in the US in particular, where this combination of legend and fantasy will go down a storm. More than anything though it needs its sequel - and soon. These first two things this remarkable debut deserves. The last the reader deserves. What is going on here?

 

Sunday, 6 December 2015

My children's books of the year 2015

Congratulations to a magician with language, Frances Hardinge, whose The Lie Tree is named Children's book of the year in today's Sunday Times. It is a fine book and prompted me to think back and pull out my own children's books of 2015.

Easily top of my pile comes Brian Selznick's truly marvellous The Marvels [post Sept]. It continues the wondrous mould-making picture/words format of his previous two masterpieces, but adds even more layers of depth and resonance.

Very close behind come Katherine Rundell's The Wolf Wilder [post Oct], an important and moving book, quite beautifully written, and Philip Reeve's RailHead [post Oct], a stunning sci-fi fantasy, displaying probably his most imaginative inventiveness since Mortal Engines.

I would also want to include Nicholas Gannon's quirkily delightful The Doldrums [post Nov] - interestingly another book whose wonderful illustrations are fully integral to its charm. And it would be wrong to leave out Terry Pratchett's final book The Shepherd's Crown [post Sept], not only for its own sake but for the place it holds in the oeuvre of one of our greatest ever comedy-fantasy writers and a superbly witty, imaginative and humane person.

This year also saw the publication of the second volume of projected trilogies each of which I predict will be very special in its own way when completed: Ian Johnstone's truly epic children's fantasy, The Mirror Chronicles [post July]; S.E.Grove's stunningly original fantasy Mapmakers; [post Aug]; and, for much older readers, Sally Green's devastating 'Half' sequence [post June].

There were a number of other very fine books too, including one that promises to be the beginning of a significant new children's series, Robert Beatty's Serafina and the Black Cloak [post July] and an exciting new addition to an already almost classic one, SandRider from Angie Sage [post Dec].

It has clearly been a fantastic year. I look forward with confidence to 2016. My most eagerly anticipated title? Probably The House of Mountfathom from the brilliant Nigel McDowell.

Although I know nothing specific about the plans of these authors or their publishers, I would also dearly love to see the next books from Sara Crowe and Tom Huddleston, following up their staggering debuts, Bone Jack [post June '14] and The Waking World [full post very soon].

 

Thursday, 3 December 2015

SandRider (Todhunter Moon Book 2) by Angie Sage

 

Although I have read some outstanding non-fantasy books recently, I seemed to hit a rather fallow period in terms of unearthing great children's fantasy, so it is good to reunite with an old friend.

The fairly recent publication of this new Angie Sage novel provided me with the welcome opportunity to return to the delightful wold of Septimus Heap (see my post from November 2014) As with some friends not seen for a while, it wasn't until rediscovery that I realised quite how much I had missed it. I had almost forgotten what an absolutely delightful read these books are.

This is the second book of the Todhunter Moon sequence, which is both a continuation and a refreshment of the previous Septimius Heap stories. Angie Sage has cleverly renewed her now substantial narrative by moving its focus to the next generation of young protagonists, including a female 'lead', thus allowing fresh life and adventures into her world, whilst still retaining many now much loved characters in a subsidiary role. Those familiar with this world will feel totally and comfortably at home, yet be able to read on with fresh interest and excitement. They can now continue to identify with principal characters of their own age even though earlier stories had deleloped the author's first set of protagonists through into young adulthood. It is no easy feat to offer more of the same without it being too much the same - if you see what I mean- but Angie Sage has pulled off exactly that trick, with aplomb.

As I said in my earlier discussion of the sequence, the whole consitiutes a treasure of children's literature. Yet it is inevitable that over a run of as many books as are now involved, some will be somewhat stronger than others. However Angie Sage is really on top form with this latest addition. She is developing her her newer protaginists beautifully whilst skilfully embedding their story amongst earlier characters and their world. SandRider is a true sparkler amongst gems. It is masterfully plotted and its principal storyline - a race to find the Orm's egg before the hatchling disastrously imprints itself on the evil wizard Oraton-Marr - provides wonderfully exciting and engaging structure, making this a real classic page-turner. This excitement is further enhanced by the inclusion, mid-book, of a sledge race which adds tension just as exhilaratingly nail-biting as the Ben Hur chariot race ( for those who remember it). Then when the one race turns into the other - well! This storytelling is magic in every sense.

Sandrider has all the ingredients of a near ideal fantasy entertainment read for young children (probably best suited to 7-11s, although this will always depend on individual readers). It brims with imagination; it conjures a captivating magical world which grows in richness and maintains an engaging credibility; it has strong, likeable protagonists who are far enough from perfect, and make enough mistakes, to engender easy empathy, but still, in the end, epitomise important qualities of courage, honesty and loyalty; it has dastardly and rather grotesque villains who display enough storybook evil to scare tinglingly, but are not so horrific as to disturb seriously; it has a rollercoaster plot where thrills galore are interspersed with moments of cozy comfort and enchanting humour; and it ends with a satisfyingly warm resolution, whilst still hinting at further adventures to come. Angie Sage is a master of her genre and needs to be lauded widely.

As a final note: in my discussion of the of PathFinder I complained of the rather weak and lacklustre presentation of the UK edition. It is pleasing therefore to say that the UK cover for SandRider is far more fittingly compelling, even though the text still lacks the superb and wonderfully evocative Mark Zug drawings which have developed as such an integral element of the series as a whole. Thank goodness, then, that we can still also fairly easily access the US edition which includes a full complement of illustrations as well as a design that matches the full set.

 

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon


 
'I know you're not a fantasy, in the sense of the books I usually record here,' said the blogger, 'but I'll be blowed if I'm not going to write about you anyway. I feel very privileged to have read a classic whilst it's so newly minted.'
 
He was speaking to the book he'd just finished. If Archer B. Helmsley* could hold conversations with stuffed animals, then he didn't see why an old codger like him shouldn't talk to his books.
 
'Do you mean me?' said The Doldrums. 'I feel pretty new, but I didn't know I was a classic.'
 
'Well you are,' said the blogger. 'Or you will be, sure. Sure as eggs.'
 
'You mean like Aristotle's Poetics?'
 
'I always knew you were a very intelligent book, despite your hiding it quite well. No. Not exactly. More like The Railway Children or The Borrowers.'
 
'Hey. I am American you know.'
 
'To the core. Sorry. Like The Phantom Tollbooth then, or A Winkle in Time.'

'Truly?'
 
'Truly?'
 
'Am I very like them?'
 
'No. Not a bit. You're a bit like a lot of things. And not a lot like anything. In fact a lot not like anything. That's the thing. That's why you're classic. Mostly. That and being beautiful. And funny. And clever. And amazing. And touching. And Different. Did I say that already?'
 
'You may have. Was it a compliment?'
 
'It surely was.'
 
'Well, Thanks then, I suppose.'
 
'You're welcome.'
 
 
Probably enough. The Doldrums is indeed an odd read. In a good way. In fact in a wonderful way. As I just told the book, it kept reminding me vaguely of other things - a very eclectic mix of other things - but without being terribly like any of them.
 
It is very much a children's book, although with a sophistication and wit which I think will greatly appeal to older readers too. It certainly belongs to a particular, very American tradition of writing for children: books about the everyday lives of rather hard-done-to, just slightly quirky, but independent-thinking kids, with remarkable resilience and humour. You know, The Pinballs and the like. In The Doldrums there are three principal children: Archer whose explorer grandparents have disappeared by floating off on an iceberg and, in consequence, whose mother won't ever let him out of the house in case anything similar happens to him; Adeliade, who is trying to compensate for a wooden leg and the fact that it thwarted her ambitions to become a dancer; Oliver, who is desperately lonely and just wants friends. The story has just hints of Roald Dahl too, with the kids presented as the more normal ones in a world of grotesque and sometimes rather monstrous grown-ups; although here not all the adults are quite so bad.
 
There are also strands of a tradition that goes right back to Edith Nesbit, The Treasure Seekers say, and through her to Edward Eagre's Half Magic, and on; all those countless books about children having 'an adventure'. But here's the thing about The Doldrums. Although its kids very much want an adventure, and even plan one (after a fashion), it never actually happens. In fact nothing very much happens at all. In this sense the comparison which leapt to my mind is David Shelton's phenomenal*** A Boy and a Bear in a Boat****. The Doldrums is not quite as enigmatic or indeed as absurdist as David Shelton's book*****, but there are times when it feels like it is getting close; so little happens in such a wonderful, totally enthralling way. These kids so much want to go on their adventure but, like the stuffed animals which permeate the story (and the illustrations), they go nowhere fast.
 
I have another comparator too, perhaps a weird one. In this one respect the kids in The Doldrums bring to mind The Three Sisters. In Chekov's play the main characters are always harping on about going to Moscow. But they never actually go or even make much move to get there. In fact their desire to go to Moscow, and their failure to go is a metaphore, an outward expression of their inner state. So with our trio in The Doldrums, their inability to make it as far as the adventure is essentially what the story is about. Actually, they are not in a position to go. They can go in their own fantasies, but in reality it is just not feasible. They are at an age and stage where they are caught in the Doldrums of life, they have plenty of ideas, bold intentions, aspirations, but they are only children, becalmed by their lack of age and experience.

In fact it is a little unfair to say that nothing happens in the book. It narrates many incidents in the everyday lives of these children. These are mostly amusing, some are farcical and some hilarious. Towards the end of the book they do travel alone across town on a bus to look for a ship to take them to Antarctica. Then they come right back home on the bus again! As the climax of the whole tale they precipitate a stupendous chase through a museum, when they are pursued by tigers (for once real not stuffed). But they still end up at home again at the end of it. It is not quite that nothing happens, just that nothing much happens, or at least that the adventure the kids so long for doesn't happen.
 
Yet the book is an unalloyed joy, every word, every page, every chapter. So what makes a book with so little (apparent) development of its key storyline so hugely enjoyable? More than anything it is the fact that it is written with such humanity, such humour, such pervasive wit and so much love and understanding for its hugely likeable protagonists. It is a very funny book indeed. One last comparison, it reminds me somehow of the Peanuts comic strip and its characters. I am still trying to sort out just why. I think it is because both invite us to laugh at the precocious cleverness of these children but also at their naïveté, sometimes at their over-confidence, and even their self-delusion. Yet they never do so with any malice whatsoever, rather always with admiration and love. These are just delightful children, far from perfect, but quite wonderful in their integrity and in their commitment to each other. It is actually a story about being young, about having dreams, about looking for love, but more than anything about friendship, and this is the story which Nicholas Gannon develops richly in the course of its telling.
 
There is another major thing which makes this book such a great one and that is the author's wonderful skill with language in particular and with writing overall. His original style and often very dry verbal wit are a constant delight. An excellent example of his unique bookcraft is when, after having employed, very entertaining section headers right through, he uses these in quick-fire succession to create furious momentum for the climactic chase through the museum.
 
The volume is lavishly illustrated too, not only with numerous drawn vignettes but with many stunning full page and double spread paintings, all by the author himself. These paintings, in muted colours across a predominantly sepia pallette, are often detailed, somewhat architectural scenes with very squared off perspective and a somehow exaggerated feeling of space. They are populated, often sparsely, with realistic animals (albeit generally stuffed) and more simply depicted, rather cartoon-like people. They are distinctly idiosyncratic and rather difficult to pin down in style. They made me think of some sort of weird cross between, say, Anthony Browne and Edward Hopper, with perhaps a touch of Andrew Wyeth thrown in. Just like the text of the book, though, they are arresting, and somehow very American. You instinctively know that they are something very special. They communicate strongly to both head and heart and are strangely beautiful. The combined result of this harmonious amalgam of text and visual images (supplemented by the outstanding production values of the hardback volume itself) makes for a remarkable whole; like the very best picture books, but vastly extended. It hefts most satisfyingly in the hand, and in the memory too.
 
This volume is prominently marked as Book One, so clearly there is more to come. Exactly where this is going, or whether indeed anything much will happen next is less clear. Indeed, after the delights of this first book going nowhere much, it may not be such a good thing if it did. I probably should not try to second guess such a startlingly original writer. I shall abide in impatience instead.
 
 
Footnotes:
 
*Who? Just read it for yourself. Love Marmite**, love this book!
**US readers: What?
***literally
****Which reminds me I have not yet written up what is surely one of the most remarkable (and brilliant) children's books of recent years. Note to self: must.
*****Magnus Mills for children. If you haven't read it you really should. My biggest non fantasy must for fantasy fans.
 

 

 

 

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's (Sorcerer's) Stone, Illustrated by Jim Kay

 
Yes. I know. This blog is supposed to be about children's and YA fantasy written since Harry Potter. So why am I writing about the already iconic . . . and the Philosopher's Stone from way back in 1997? Simply because the publication of a brand new, fully illustrated edition is, for good or bad, too significant an event in the history of children's publishing to ignore. As happens, I think it has turned out to be very much for the good.
 
Of course illustrating the first Potter was always going to be a big risk. Most of us have already read it, probably reread it, read it to our children and even read it to the cat. Not to mention having done the same with the rest of the huge series too. This means we already each have our own cherished and long built-up images of its characters, settings and scenes, having rightly and wonderfully let our own imaginations and sensitivities respond to Joanne Rowlings evocative text. Added to which most of us, like it or not, also have the images of the movie emblazoned on our brains. Some I suspect have let the latter superimpose themselves , others will have reconciled the two, and yet others tried to reject the film in favour of their own preferred visualisations. But do we really now need someone else again to try to foist their own images on us? Of course there have been other new visuals since the movie, on the website and on the covers of subsequent editions, but nothing really on this scale. Is this new edition something that diehard Potter fans need to shun, leaving it to the few, perhaps younger, children who have yet to discover him?
 
Actually, I think that any who do will miss out, in a very big way. Jim Kay has succeeded wonderfully in giving us some magnificently stimulating and enriching images, which genuinely enhance rather than conflict with those that come directly from the text itself. They add too rather than break the spell of our own imaginings; illuminate the fantasy without destroying the magic.
 
Jim Kay's pictures have been created in a wide range of styles and formats, from delicate and detailed vignettes to dramatic and impressionistic double page spreads. But then Joanne Rowling's story equally encompasses a wide range of moods and styles, from humorous to heroic and from tender to tense. One of her many great achievements is to meld these different elements convincingly into a totally enchanting whole. Jim Kay has now pulled off the equivalent feat with his illustrations, pulling together his entertaining variety of approaches into pleasing overall cohesion; always exciting, surprising and enthralling, but never jarring or out of place.
 
Amongst my many highlights are the very detailed architectural drawings which he uses thrillingly to depict the exterior of Hogwarts. Here he suggests something approaching high fantasy, feeding rather than impoverishing the imagination. Sometimes sharply drawn buildings are atmospherically contrasted with more hazily iimpressionistic landscape or foliage (as when Draco Malfoy is shown flying with the Remembrall), almost reminiscent of the work of John Piper. In a different style the intricately detailed wooden door which backgrounds the portrait of Hermione wonderfully evokes all the generations of students who have attended Hogwarts in the past. In yet another rather different style, he echoes wonderfully the rampant invention and the pure magical charm of Joanne Rowling's Diagon Alley in a way that the movie, for all is high tech wizardry, never quite does.
 
Also impressive are Jim Kay's full page portraits of many of the major characters. These too vary slightly in style, often echoing the personality being depicted. Draco Malfoy's is verging on photorealism and decidedly creepy, whilst Hagrid's is dark and wild, it's dramatic perspective giving us a stunning feeling of his huge size. Almost all do what the very best portraits always do, provide considerable insight into the person as well as describing their appearance. Dumbledore's eyes speak volumes and the juxtaposed objects (honesty plant, bag of sweets, book and - yes, look carefully - knitting) wittily echo Renaissance symbolism. In somewhat similar vein, Prof McGonagall is portrayed very much as she is perceived in this first book, toad and all. Ron's portrait, in contrast, has superficial simplicity yet shows brilliantly so much about him. The artist has captured his outward geekiness and self-deprecating humour but also, again in the eyes, the capacity for love and loyalty that will see him through so much. All these portraits add much to, rather than take away from, our appreciation of these large personalities.They are masterly.
 
Yet is in the representation of Harry himself that Jim Kay really excels himself and makes a truly great contribution to a truly great book. There are many splendours to discover. The sensitive depiction of Harry in the under stairs cupboard movingly captures both the injustice of his situation and the boy's inner strength. Equally poignant is the scene of Hagrid taking Harry from the island shack. Here the forward motion of the boat, the wheeling of the seagulls, the boy's reaching arm and, more than anything, his face brilliantly capture Harry's joy at escaping and his desperate wish for a better future.The cover picture of the Kings Cross platform (better seen opened out inside than folded as the dust jacket) is inspired in the way it uses the train's steam to isolate Harry, and fix his gaze oh the flock of magical owls wheeling overhead. It so touchingly conveys him as experiencing complex feelings of awe, excitement and insecure trepidation. There are many other delights, too, not least Harry with the Mirror of Erised and Harry talking with Dumbledore shortly afterwards, which again tenderly enhance the text and provide illuminating insight into the boy's feelings.
 
For me, though, the supreme triumph of this whole suite of illustrations is the large sepia portrait of Harry from late in the volume. In this one image Jim Kay captures a vulnerability within Harry, which no one else has so perfectly or so movingly revealed.
 
All in all, Jim Kay's sensitivity and skill has turned what could potentially have been a damp squib, or even a disaster, into a triumph. This Illustrated edition is a major and very welcome addition to the Harry Potter canon.

Nevertheless, were I talking to a confident, independent young reader who had not yet encountered Harry Potter as a book, I would still recommend reading a text only edition first. This volume could then provide a treasured later addition to their bookcase. However this illustrated version may well also proove a way in to the first Potter for many less confident readers, who may, as yet, be daunted by uninterrupted prose. As so it is a wonderful opportunity. Even more so, I think this new volume is possibly the ideal one for any parent, grandparent or other carer who wishes to read with their child. Spread out between the two, it would provide an attractive, accessible and marvellously rich shared experience.

Whichever way, the fact that it might encourage more new readers to this iconic text is to be most warmly welcomed. Harry is now, after all, as much a part of our culture as Caroll's Alice's or Milne's Winnie the Pooh, perhaps more so. Indeed anything which brings children into reading, and especially into reading magical fantasy, does enormous service to each individual child and to the world.

Why? Because such reading engenders imagination. And imagination is the very lifeblood of all that we are and all that we do. It is a big part of what turns existence into living. It is vital for human relationships - for establishing empathy with others - for the arts, for science, for politics, for business. It feeds the impoverished, it frees the chained, it gives sight to the blind.

 

 

 

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Wild Swans by Jackie Morris

Although ravishing in several ways, this is not just a lovely book, it is an important one too. It is not just another retelling of a Fairy Story, it is far more.

Of course I already know the work of Jackie Morris as the creator of some of the most breathtakingly beautiful children's picture books, ever. I am thinking particularly of the likes of The Snow Leopard, The Ice Bear and Lord of the Forest (this last with writer Caroline Pitcher). So it is no surprise that The Wild Swans is illustrated with scenes and vignettes which are both telling and hauntingly lovely. This artist's supreme talent is for painting animals (and human faces in ultra close up) but she is also a skilful master in representing bare trees (deceptively simple but so perfectly caught) and other aspects of nature. Add to this deep resonance with the story itself and the art work emerges as truly magical.

Yet this is not quite a picture book. It is an illustrated novella. The greater emphasis is on Jackie Morris's own text - and in this case rightly so, because she can also write, quite wonderfully, and her reimagining of this Fairy Tale makes the book far more that just its illustration.

Of course Fairy Tale is so important in itself. Along with mythology, which delves even deeper, Fairy Tales are part of the tap root of contemporary children's fantasy.*

Pablo Picasso is attributed as saying that 'Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.' He was speaking of course about visual art, but his statement equally applies to the literary image, to the apt metaphore where the assertion that something is what it is not, jolts us into seeing better what it actually is. This extends very much into the tropes of Fairy Tale and thence into well written fantasy.

The contemporary representation of Fairy Tale actually covers a wide spectrum of writing. At one extreme an established story is simply retold for a modern children's audience, with appropriate language and 'simplified' concepts. At the other extreme authors take the bones of a traditional story, and reinterpret it, perhaps completely changing its context or setting. Others just use it as the starting point for new imaginings of their own or as an extended metaphor for contemporary issues. Jackie Morris's approach falls somewhere in the middle of these, but the ground to which she lays claim is a most interesting and important place.

She brings many things of her own to this older tale. One of the most striking, in her words as well as her pictures, is her knowledge of and sensitivity to the natural world. Clearly she has a deep love of nature and this glows through her many beautiful and detailed descriptions. They continually enrich the story with context and life. Over and above everything, her use of language is a constant delight. Words and phrases are chosen with consummate artistry to create a lyrical prose which is hauntingly beautiful (and totally fitting for the genre) without ever being precious or flowery. Children's own writing, as well as their reading experience, will potentially be much enriched through encounter with such a fine model of its type; writing which does what writing should, communicate vividly, but also richly and beautifully. Anyone looking for a good example of this should read the description of the colours of the sea in the middle paragraph of page 96. Masterly.

Jackie Morris maintains much of the feel of the tale from which she works, together with a range of the archetypal tropes of its genre, but, perhaps most importantly of all, endows and develops its characters with authentically human thoughts, feelings and motivations. She adds doubt to the certainty of even the best intentions, allows understanding of the human beings behind magical malevolence and introduces poignancy to her outcomes, which are not blandly 'happy ever after' for all. To the considerable beauty of her prose she adds humanity and in this way she subtly but surely builds a bridge for her young readers between the images and events of Fairy Tale and their own world, their own selves; between fantasy and reality.

It is a remarkable achievement and will greatly extended and enrich children's literary experience.

(Her earlier East of the Sun, West of the Moon, to which this now forms a companion volume, is equally worth seeking out.)

 

*Probaby all fantasy, but this blog happens to be about children's books.

 

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Half the World, Half a War by Joe Abercrombie

 

Joe Abercrombie here continues his Shattered Sea trilogy. Anyone who enjoyed the first volume, Half a King (and there was much to enjoy, see my post from January 2015) will not be disappointed by this powerful follow-up.

Although the world building remains rather unoriginal, it can be regarded as traditional for such 'sword and sorcery' fantasy: a basically 'Dark Age', Vikingesque society of small, warring kingdoms. In the first book it was subtly revealed that it is actually a post-apocalyptic world, where the occasional remains of an earlier, much higher, civilisation are now considered 'elf relics' redolent with dark magic. This aspect is further interestingly developed in this volume. However this too is a concept that has been used a good many times before. The world of the 'Shattered Sea' is nevertheless graphically and convincingly presented. Joe Abercrombie's real power of imagination - and it is very considerable - lies in conjouring up for the reader the most vivid and viscerally experienced environments and events. Often these build from intense detail which brings the reader right into the heart of landscapes, climates, events. He is perhaps most effective of all in bringing to most engaging life the appearance, nature, actions, thoughts and feelings of his characters. This writer peoples his world with characters, who, whether intensely likeable (which many are), truly hateful (ditto), enigmatic, or ambiguous, are always richly drawn, and believably human. We are fully drawn into their world and live through every thrilling moment with them

This is still emphatically YA and not children's reading. As well as a focus on emergent sexual relationships, it includes often extreme and graphic violence compensating for an absence of 'sorcery' with copious amounts of 'sword'. Yet it remains superlative storytelling from a master of both narrative structure and evocative language. Blood-pounding tension courses through the veins of this book.

In this second volume Joe Abercrombie introduces two new counterpointed protagonists: Thorn, a scrawny but tough girl who lives to fight, and win, and Brand, a muscular and handsome boy who consistently wishes to do right and begins to count the cost of conflict. For all its guts and gore, of which there is a very great deal, Half the World is essentially a love story, a story of powerful love awkwardly crystallising out of an uneasy relationship between these two seeming opposites. It is a most affecting one too. In many ways it is quintessential YA material; two young people growing into themselves, who truly find each other only when they each discover who they are individually - or perhaps the reverse. However the story is far more complex than this too. Although it centres on the new characters it also moves on the development of many characters from the earlier book, albeit now in more subsidiary roles. The context is a major quest, essentially a there-and-back-again journey, the purpose of which is to set up alliances in readiness for the 'global' war that is becoming more and more inevitable. In this, Joe Abercrombie skilfully sets up the impending third volume of his trilogy, without letting this one feel that is is just a 'middle book'. It is jam packed full of viscerally exciting incident, much of course sanguinous, and quite a few of the twists and turns so typical of this master storyteller. He pulls out yet another major surprise in the wildly thrilling and magnificently written climactic scene too. Through it all, however, Brand's growing antipathy to violent conflict, and his very humane response to its resulting horrors, prevent the book as a whole from glorifying its violence.

It is also good to see, in Thorn and Brand, the mould of gender stereotypes so emphatically broken through a girl-boy relationship where yin and yang roles are essentially reversed. In the startling juxtaposition of their attitudes these two protagonists embody the complex relationship between 'Mother War' and 'Father Peace', between conflict and compassion, which this trilogy is starting more and more deeply to explore.

The first two volumes of The Shattered Sea trilogy are fine books. This third is a glorious triumph of skilful writing which brings the whole to an exciting climax, involves much thought provoking resolution, leaves other issues disturbingly unresolved and reveals the whole as far more than the sum of its parts.

Joe Abercrombie builds his tale with consummate skill. Although introducing many interesting and important characters, the first book is one boy's story, that of Yarvi, the tricked, deposed and exiled 'half king', fighting his way back towards revenge. The complex world of the 'Shattered Sea ' is revealed and explored, as it were, through his eyes. Half the World, in contrast, has two key protagonists, the fierce Thorn, and the peace seeking Brand. The narrative perspective engagingly alternates between them as the author crafts a heart thumping build towards impending war. The same rich, complex world as that of Half a King, is seen through different eyes, but Yarvi and others from the earlier book are still developed as secondary characters. This third book introduces two more new principal characters, Skara, young inheritor of the devastated Bail's Point, and born fighter Raith. It also brings to the fore woodcarver and apprentice 'mage' Koll, introduced in the previous episode. Its narration therefore now picks up three perspectives, and through them continues to follow the many strands now unravelling. The narrative structures thus become more complex as the trilogy develops, echoing the horrendous events through which the world of the Shattered Sea is now propelled. The resultant tensions are emmersively gripping. As the crowning creation of Half a War progresses we realise that what its author has created is almost a Russian doll of a tale, stories nestled within stories. Encasing all, is the story of Yarvi, with so many lives and destinies shaped by the decisions and actions he made and continues to make.

And Joe Abercrombie has a genius for twisting a tale in ways or at times we readers least expect. His narrative is often surprising, shocking, sometimes devastating, and always gripping.

In building his fantasy Joe Abercrombie's superlative imagination does not take us on flights of whimsical invention but rather into the very moment of what it is like to love, live, fight and die in his rich, if belligerent, world. His tale is horrendously violent and bloody. He describes every manoeuvre, every clash, sometimes every blow of battle as well as anyone I have encountered, putting to adrenaline pounding service his masterly command of language, his detailed knowledge and research of ancient weapons and warfare and of course his awesome power as a storyteller.*

In this third book the writer finally fully exploits his conceit that his current wold is build on the ruins of an earlier much more advanced civilisation. He gives one side in the battle of the Shattered Sea access to weapons that are literally devastating, raising many of the most profound questions about so-called progress, and what armed conflict has come to mean in our own time. At its heart this is a story of war, in all its graphic horror. However it is also much more. So very much more.

On one level Joe Abercrombie's stunning trilogy is pessimistic, cynical. There is no war to end all wars. War just begets more war. It is never glorious, Winning is never life's greatest triumph. His themes in The Shattered Sea are many and complex. It is about life lost and life discovered, both because of and despite war. It is about the lust for fighting and the longing for peace. It is about how each of these can, ironically, lead to the other. It is about the sword and the word, about when to fight and when to talk, and about when not to do either. It is about the necessity to protect one's own, but also about what more is lost when one does. It is about the corrupting nature of revenge. It is about love found and love lost, love won, love denied, love repudiated and love stolen. It is about going on when there is nothing left to go on for. It is about seeking out and building a future despite everything. It is a rich, complex, violent, gruesome, humane, tender work. It is wonderful.

I can only again express my admiration for the masterly skill in storytelling that oozes from every sentence, every page, every chapter of this trilogy, but most of all from the conception and execution of its awe inspiring whole.

 

*Bernard Cornwell is another such, but his books are not so directly geared to YA.

 

Friday, 16 October 2015

Railhead by Philip Reeve

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Despite a childhood which included, for a time, a modest Hornby layout on my bedroom floor (once around the dirty socks, a station of piled homework and a tunnel under the bed) I would not have expected to be a huge enthusiast for a book about a rail network. But I am. Railhead has just proved to be one of those rare and precious reading experiences where the desperate desire to know how intriguing things turn out fights with a longing for it all not to end, not to have to leave a truly engrossing world or to say goodbye to characters I have come to care deeply about. It was one of those reads where closing the final pages brought a feeling almost of bereavement; memories which would be held close for a long time wrapped in the wrench of an immediate experience lost. This book is that good.

Of course I have long rated Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series (now republished as Predator Cities) amongst the great works of children's imaginative literature. (See my post from February '15.)

In a quite different vein, I also enjoyed enormously his Here Lies Arthur (2007). Alongside my passion for fantasy, I am something of aficionado of King Arthur novelisations, particularly ones which explore the relationship between the 'historical' and the legendary leader. In fact l have a full shelf of related children's titles, ranging right from George Finkle's haunting Twilight Province from back in 1976, through Rosemary Sutcliff and such delights as Anne McCaffrey's Black Horses for the King to Michael Morpurgo and, of course, Kevin Crossley Holland's now almost classic Arthur trilogy. Philip Reeve's book holds a worthy place alongside these eminent neighbours.

Even so I was taken aback that Railhead is quite such a wonderful book as it is. I probably shouldn't have been, but I was. This book turned out to tick all my boxes for an outstanding work of children's fantasy fiction: it is strikingly original and superbly imaginative; it builds a fascinating world peopled with engaging characters; it is written with masterly richness - and it is a devastatingly exciting story to boot. On top of all this, it has a great deal to say for itself and many questions to ask of the reader. It is a book to think about as well as to enjoy.

Of course, it is probably more accurate to label it sci-fi rather than fantasy - but here the line is very narrow. It does build its world in a futuristic ultra science context rather than a mythical one. It does feature sentient trains, humanoid robots, peoples who rely on advanced communication and uber technology and 'gods' who are complex data sets. But its trains are not too far removed from dragons, its androids elves or dwarfs, its masters of technology magicians. This is a brilliantly magical world.

Certainly, there are elements of this story which draw on 'fantasy' tradition and precedents. The opening gambit of a petty thief being recruited by a sinister 'magician' to steal something much more significant, as is Zen, the protagonist, here, has certainly been seen before. Similarly the idea of a boy who thought himself of lowly origin turning out to be far less so is not novel. However these story elements are not to the book's detriment. Rather, they link it to its narrative traditions. Beyond this, though, the whole universe which Philip Reeve conceives, with its anthropomorphic trains* travelling a network that regularly crosses vast distances of space, is unique and arresting. Similarly it is peopled with most imaginatively conceived characters and technologies. Foremost amongst these are the K-gates which allow the trains to cross space instantaneously. Also conceived with stunning imagination are the Hive Monks, creatures made up of colonies of bugs which can animate themselves in humanoid form (just about). Similarly striking are the ethereal Station Angels, shimmering 'after effects' of K-gate travel, who may just be more then they seem. The whole concept is brilliant, in both senses of the word. Philip Reeve is one of the most imaginative contemporary writers we have.

As befits such an admired and experienced writer, his use of language and control of style and structure are also nothing short of masterly. When, for example, he describes Zen's passion as a 'railhead', his compulsion for riding the trains, Philip Reeve does not take us into any world of dull, sad anoraks but immediately shares with us all the adrenaline rush, all the exhilaration of riding the silver rails and crashing with an 'un-bang' from one world to the next. It is quite magical writing giving us an equally magical vicarious experience. And this is only the start of a thrilling rush of story, thrillingly told. One un-bang after another.

At the very heart of the book is a very simple love story - or it would perhaps be simple if did not involve two beings - Zen and the android 'wire dolly', Nova - between whom no one would have considered such a relationship even remotely conceivable . It is therefore about love which transcends all prejudice, all taboos, transcends even the possible, and, in consequence, is of profound significance. I well recall the relationship between Tom and Hester, which begins so spikily in Mortal Engines, as one of the most wonderfully conceived and developed in all of children's literature. That between Zen and Nova is, in its way, just as affective and just as memorable.

Perhaps most important of all for me, though, is that Railhead breaks the mould of the strongest and most exploited convention of fantasy fiction : that it is centrally about a conflict between the light and the dark; that it involves the hard-won triumph of good over an unspeakable evil, which was threatening the whole of life.

I spent much of the novel intriguided by which of the rather ambiguous key characters were going to turn out to be good or evil, which 'side' they were on. Only later was I brought to the realisation that no one in this fascinating world is clearly either one or the other. Characters, relationships and the reader's perceptions of them continually and subtly shift. Some fail to become what they could be, others are as surprised by the way things turn out. Some are simply out for themselves, others are revealed to be less selfish than they seemed. But there are no 'sides' in an absolute sense. This is a more subtle, more complex world than that, and the book is a richer and more rewarding reading experience for it.

Ultimately Railhead is about the need for a new beginning, a new beginning on a cosmic scale. However it is not a new beginning that is needed because the universe is evil, black. This fresh start is needed because life is tired, too comfortable, too rigid, too controlled, too safe. The network has become too self-contained. This universe and its story poses questions, and challenges, for us all. Zen is not a hero of legend. He is the potential hero in us all. He is after all the petty thief, the struggling survivor, not the knight in shining armour, or even the simple hobbit. He just comes to see when a new start is needed, and, ultimately, has the courage to make it happen.

In the main it will probably only be older readers who pick up and are entertained by the literary and musical references in many of the names Philip Reeve selects, or by his subtly inserted quotes from Casablanca; but I am older and I was entertained. It is one of the many endearing things about the 'motorik', Nova, that she loves that old film. She is one of the many great creations of this book - that is if you don't count the Hive Monks, or the trains, or the Station Angels, or Flex, or Zen, or . . .

Railhead is abundant in originality and imagination, rich in characters and story, captivating in its world building, mould breaking in its ambivalent morality, and enthralling in its sensitive questioning of how, when and why we, and the world, need a fresh start. It is one of my books of the year so far, probably a book of the decade, possibly . . .

We should all 'Listen . . .'


*Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends break bad.

 

 

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Some more fine 'misfits'

Every now and then I find myself reading a children's or YA book which does not really fit in at all with the fantasy theme of my blog but which is sufficiently remarkable to make me wish to record and recommend it. So here is another clutch of these outstanding 'misfits'.
 
 
I much admired, and greatly enjoyed, Katherine Rundell's compelling and original Rooftoppers. The Wolf Wilder is a very different, but no less wonderful, book.
 
It has many outstanding features. One that it does share with its predecessor is a splendidly gutsy and strongly drawn girl protagonist. Here Feo, who shares with her mother the very special role of 'wolf wilder', is no fragile flower. Her body is sturdy and scarred, her hair is wayward, her clothes are dirty and stink of wolf and she reportedly hugs with the strength of one too. Her determination and courage are formidable, but her considerable internal beauty also shines through like a beacon. She is a human being to die for. Also characterfully drawn are her two principal companions. Whilst one, Alexei, is in embryo a committed revolutionary fighter, the other, Ilya, is a boy soldier who would rather be a ballet dancer instead. Ilya, however, has considerable courage and loyal strength of his own and, whilst he may have something of Billy Elliot in his conception, it is nevertheless most valuable to have another role model for artistically-aspiring boys so tellingly portrayed in quality literature.
 
The Wolf Wilder in an engrossing and exciting adventure too, the tale of Feo's gruelling treck through the hardships of a Russian winter to find and rescue her wrongly arrested mother. It also has an uber villain, a megalomaniac general in the nominal service of an ineffectual Tzar. This context gives everything much deeper and resonant meaning. Whilst it is, in itself, a story of much needed popular resistance to oppression in pre-revolutionary Russia, it also resonates with so many situations in the world, past and present, where ordinary people need to stand up against mindlessly cruel tyranny, be this on a large or on a small scale.
 
Woven into all this is one of the most sure-fire winners of literature, the exploration of a deep relationship between a human being and particular, special animals. In this book Feo's bond with her, almost wild, wolves is as remarkable as it is profound. However it is never sentimental. Feo's wolves claw her, piss on her, sometimes ignore her. Yet the bond between them is deep, real, compelling and sometimes heart-rending. The Wolf Wilder is everything that an animal story can be - and so much more.
 
Over and above all these, however, the real triumph of this book is the consummate skill with which it is written. Its language is elegantly simple. It is never verbose but always thrillingly apt and magically evocative. Its frequent images are rich and often startlingly original, sometimes breathtaking in their insightful evocation of mood and moment. The descriptions are so tellingly vivid that, as a reader you share every moment. It seems almost impossible, for example, to read of Feo's struggling through the 'blind cold' of the worst of Russian winter without stopping to blink the frost from your own eyelashes, or to witness Ilya dancing in a campfire clearing without feeling the lift of your own wild jeté.
 
This makes The Wolf Wilder a very special book indeed. It is one that I am sure will be read, enjoyed and revered for many years to come. As Katherine Rundell's Feo says, 'It's book gold. It lasts a long time.'
 
Incidentally the UK hardback edition is itself a physically beautiful volume. Its fine production values are much enhanced by Gerlev Ongbico's wonderful illustrations. These capture the book's mood perfectly and speak eloquently of Russia, of the snow, and, of course, of wolves. More glisten to the gold.
 
 

 

I have been enthralled by Ancien Egypt ever since I did a project on Tutankhamen in primary school. However I know of very little high quality children's fiction set in that fascinating historical context. Of course there have been fantasies and time slips involving modern children going back to Ancient Egypt or featuring Egyptian gods, 'mummies' and the like intruding into our own world, but that's not the same. Very few writers have successfully recreated the actual history of the period as a background to children's fiction. Perhaps this stems from the difficulty of creating characters who are engaging and understandable to a contemporary children's audience yet do not think, talk or behave in ways jarringly anachronistic for such a remote and alien culture.

It is enormously to the credit of Jamie Buxton that he achieves exactly that. It is even more remarkable that he does so through the first person narrative voice of an Ancient Egyptian boy. His protagonist is lively, likeable, and often funny, but still largely credible as living in the Egypt of the pharaohs. He does think and act in a way consistent with the period, at least allowing for the imaginative interpretation of any historical fiction, yet is still someone with whom the contemporary child can easily identify and empathise. The author's chosen background period too, the turbulent reign of the strange and 'heretic' pharaoh, Akenaten, contains much historical accuracy combined with recreation based on reputable academic theory and speculation. Of course the actual adventure is somewhat less likely, but not altogether incongruous. It is also exciting and involving. The secondary characters are often most interestingly three-dimensional too, including the pharoh's daughter, Mekataten, as well as Akenaten himself and his wife Nefertiti. This is a romp, but an intelligent romp. Beneath its high adrenaline shenanigans the book has some worthwhile ideas to explore and some valuable things to say, not least about the true meaning of freedom. All of these combine to make Sun Thief an impressive piece of writing and a most enjoyable read. This is ancient history brought excitingly alive for contemporary children without it being turned totally into modern tosh.

 

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Copper Gauntlet (Magisterium #2) by Holly Black & Cassandra Clare


 
With their first book in this new sequence, The Iron Trial, these talented, experienced and hugely popular writers worked a very clever trick. They started a story which seemed to be based on so many of the now standard features of Harry Potter type children's fantasy that it was feeling almost clichéd. Before the end however they had given this such an original twist, and confounded so dramatically all the expectations they had cannily set up, that it emerged as a most interesting and exciting new contribution to the genre. (See my post from Feb '15.)

Coming to a second in the series however, I did wonder whether they would be able to sustain the same level of originality, having shot the bolt of their devastating surprise at the end of the first novel. I need not have feared. The authors have managed to capitalise wonderfully on the tensions they set up, and even managed to spring a few more surprises, in what is another page turning thriller that builds towards a shocking climax. This is helped along by the very skilful writing and adept plotting you would expect from these two authors. The ending of this second book is, in some ways, rather more positive than the first, although there remain enough intriguing ambiguities and unresolved issues to promise more enjoyable follow-ons.
 
This is essentially comfort reading rather than great children's literature. It is at heart a story about a group of friends having an adventure, albeit with a sinister overlay; The Famous Five, reimagined for contemporary kids through the addition of dark magic. It has all the classic elements, strong friendships and equally strong enmities, jealousies and misunderstandings, sympathetic and hostile adults - and a very special animal. Its characters and relationships are of course far more interesting and complex that anything Blyton ever wrote, and unlike such precursors it includes a dark overlord, no few diabolical monsters, and the persistent threat of evil. In Magisterium all of this is most interestingly intensified by a core confusion about where the boundaries between light and dark lie, particularly within the persona of its principle protagonist.
 

I am sure there will be many children who will feel that here at last, after so many other books have been misleadingly hyped, is something which really is as good as Harry Potter. They will will not be far wrong. It has enough of the same features to make its world reassuringly familiar, and more than enough that is original and different to keep it always intensely engaging and exciting. It explores many of the situations and feelings children know and understand at the same time as giving them, through imagination and empathy, the magical powers they would so like to have. It will entertain, thrill, amuse and 'safely' scare them. J.K.Rowling succeeded because she provided all these things in spades; it looks like these two skilful writers are doing the same.

 

Sunday, 20 September 2015

The Marvels by Brian Selznick


I make no apology for including here a book that isn't a fantasy, because The Marvels is a truly magical work in just about every other possible way.

Brian Selsnick's contribution to children's literature has already been amazing, ground breaking in the most exciting of ways. Very much out on his own, he has created what is essentially a new genre of fiction, a novel told through pictures as well as words.

The picture book has, of course, been one of the most important and artistically productive genres in children's literature for a long time. The art of storytelling through graphic conventions has also been an occasional but significant element, developed in pioneering series like Tintin and Asterix. However Brian Selznick's works are categorically not picture books as we know them, nor are they comic books or graphic novels. In most picture books the illustrations complement the words, in one way or another, sometimes simple, sometimes complex. Here pictures alone carry much of the storytelling. In this way these works are much more closely akin to the wonderful wordless picture books of David Wiesner, Shaun Tan or Raymond Briggs. However Brian Selznick's are in every sense full-length novels, with all the extended development, depth and complexity that this term implies. Their uniqueness lies in that their narrative is conveyed through whole sections of full double spread pictures as well as, at other times, through words. The interrelationship of these two forms, of the stories they tell and the way they are told, is germane to Brian Selznick's creations. They are very special.

Although I think The Marvels is the pinnacle of his work to date, it does,of course, have two glorious precedents. His first book in this particular style was the deservedly lauded and awarded The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a considerable wonder of an achievement in itself - and a very important milestone in the history of children's literature.Although Martin Scorsese's subsequent film of the book, titled just Hugo, was an affectionate homage and itself very lovely to look at, in no way could it ever have come near to the quality of experience of the original. It is as a reading phenomenon that this work is so special.

Also a delightful and important book is his second foray into this genre, Wonder Struck. It is particularly exciting that Brian Selsnick continued - and indeed continues - to explore his own format through each subsequent title. The first book told its story primarily through pictures, but with interleaved short passages of text continuing the same narrative. Wonder Struck tells two stories separated by fifty years, one entirely in pictures, the other entirely in words, with each in short sections, again physically interspersed. As the book progresses the intriguing relationship between these two stories gradually becomes apparent.

The Marvels is slightly different in structure again; a further inventive exploration. The first 400 or so pages of the book tell the story of the eponymous Marvels, a family of theatre folk, over several generations, entirely in pictures. They tell it quite wonderfully too. Brian Selznick's trademark full page pencil drawing are enchantingly lovely. He uses a wide range of cinematic perspectives - long shots, overheads, close ups, ultra close ups - and the illusion of different momentums, ranging from quick fire action and periods of quiet stillness, to propell the narrative and dramatically engage the reader. It is amazing how much intense empathy for his characters these pictures can evoke. His story is intriguing and sometimes cleverly shocks by letting readers discover that what they had been led to believe thus far was complete wrong. His interiors and exteriors, including weather and lighting, are often exquisite achieved within the medium. His figure drawing is somewhat naive, yet still enchanting. However it is in his drawing of human faces, in close up and ultra close up, that his great genius as an artist lies. Not only are his faces often exquisitely beautiful, but they convey thoughts and emotions with almost unbelievable depth and truth. The crowning glory of this is his drawing of these characters' eyes. In his hands, these eyes truly are windows to the soul; they convey a complexity of inner life and feeling that is quite uncanny. I would need to reference some of the great masters of portraiture to find anything comparable. They are startling, stunning and so very moving. Anyone thinking that reading pictures like this is a soft option compared to reading text would be very wrong. It needs sensitivity and acuity of observation, and as much, if not more, imaginative contribution from the reader as any written text. However is is a most worthwhile and rewarding activity.

In the second main section of the book, the author tells a story, set much later, in 1990. This principally concerns a runaway boy, Joseph who finds himself staying with his Uncle Albert in a remarkable time-capsule of a house in Spittalfields, London. This narration is entirely in prose and it is clear that, on top of his remarkable drawing skill, Brian Selznick is no slouch with words either. The writing is sensitive and masterly. The story is engaging and intriguing. However it is the gradually discovered relationship between the written narrative and the picture story that is at its heart. The way that we as readers are allowed to tease out what fits where, spiced with the occasional tingling shock of realising that we have been misled, is a real delight and ultimately a most moving revelation. There are ambiguities too, and these just make this remarkable text all the more rich and rewarding.

Towards the very end the narrative reverts to pictures only and so squares the circle, in several ways. Not only is this a return to the format of the earlier storytelling, but it now raises some of the same questions. Of course they are now seen in a different light. The earlier drawings turned out to have been created by a character in the later story. Who is supposed to have drawn these later ones? Do they represent something that actually happened, or are they just someone's dream? Is this part of the 'real' story? But then of course, even the 'real' story is itself a fiction. The whole also, however, has some relationship to an actual reality, that of a remarkable man called Dennis Severs who did indeed create a time-capsule house which can still be visited at 18 Folgate Street, Spittalfields in London. This book both answers questions and asks others. The ideas contained in its multiple layers and considerable depths are fascinating, enigmatic but ultimately beautiful. It challenges our ideas of what is real and what is true and proves yet again that story does not have to be one in order to be the other. This book matters, as only the very greatest of books matter.

There is another way too in which The Marvels is hugely important. It presents a gay relationship in exactly the way I think a 21st Century children's book should do, and needs to do; not only as a loving, long term commitment, but as one which is not 'an issue' in any way. It is simply accepted by Joseph and those around him as a normal, and very special, part of life. When, later, Joseph's own future, in another gay partnership, is subtly and sensitively sketched in, it is touching and beautiful - and perfectly normal too. Children in our still often all too prejudiced world need to see this normality so affectingly modelled.

In fact this work is wonderfully important in so many ways. It pushes the boundaries of Brian Selznick's own ground breaking genre and opens new levels of richness. It movingly tributes Dennis Severs' amazing creation of 18 Folgate Street, yet remains, every word and picture, a magnificent and totally original artistic creation in its own right. For years to come it will enrich the lives of those children who access and explore it, who open themselves to its many marvels and start to see all there is to see in it. It will deepen not only their intellectual understanding but their emotional understanding of their world: of history, lineage and heritage, of stories and dreams, of the reality of the imagination, of beauty, of integrity, of poetry and drama and music, of home and family, and of love.

Some won't see it, but that will be their loss.

The Marvels is the gift of one gentle, quirky, original, inspired anduniquely talented man to the memory of another such - and through him to us all. It will become one of the great works of children's literature of all time, not just of our own. No. It already is.


Note:

If after reading The Marvels you are fascinated by the idea of the Spittalfields house - and it is hard to see who wouldn't be - then I would warmly encourage adults (and maybe some children) to read Dennis Severs' own book 18 Folgate Street (available from the website). It is as charming, whimsical, eclectic and enigmatic as the house itself. Visit too someday, of course; but I suspect that, like me, you will already want that.