Tuesday, 22 December 2015
Saturday, 12 December 2015
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
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
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
Saturday, 14 November 2015
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.