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, 24 February 2015

The Boy with the Tiger's Heart by Linda Coggin


This is a strange book - but strange in a good way, in fact strange in a rather wonderful way.

The title is a very good one and in many ways captures the strangeness and power of the book. The boy in question, a prominent figure in the story, yet not the actual protagonist, has the heart of a tiger in both a literal and a metaphorical sense. Yet the literal is not actually possible. We are on the verge of fantasy. Reality is ambivalent.

The same quality of ambiguity is evident in the very dramatic and wonderfully apt cover illustration by Levente Szabo. The image is simultaneously of a tiger's head and of a wooded outcrop with figures. It is the trees that form the tiger 's stripes - or possibly vice versa. Perception shifts between the two depending how you look at it, in a way that approaches the old optical illusion of candlesticks and faces. The realities merge. The picture is illusive. So is the book. It has no concrete presence, just shifting images that hover between nature and fantasy.

The protagonist of the story, a girl initially unnamed but later called Nona, has been brought up by dogs, although later adopted by an odd and eccentric 'scientist'. He is an experimenter who has kept specimens of live wild aminals in a world where almost all the rest have been purged to keep the population 'safe'. However, the book does not so much explore the implications of the girl's feral upbringing, to the extent that several other fictions on this subject do. Rather it uses it as a explanation for her empathy with animals and as a symbol of her essential wildness.

When Nona's adoptive Father is hounded by the ruling authoritarian regime, he releases his specimen animals and kills himself. Wrongly accused of his murder the girl flees in search of a free, wild world beyond that in which she now lives. She sets off on a long and difficulty journey-quest, accompanied by an erstwhile dancing bear but pursued by the evil authorities. Later she meets and teams up with an abused boy, as well as the tiger-boy of the title and a number of other escapee beasts.

One of the few words I can come up with for this book is poetic. But I do not want to give a false impression. Its language is not elaborate or fanciful. Rather the reverse. It is extremely clear and straightforward; at times almost clipped, particularly in its dialogue. Rather it is poetic in the sense that its story, its characters, its actions are more image than reality, metaphors; its reality is gently shifting, vague, translucent around the edges.

Both the geographical and human landscape through which the companions travel are a strange mixture, sometimes almost fairy tale, at others dystopian grunge, almost cyber-punk in feel. Many of the incidents on the journey and the characters met are not totally credible in a naturalistic sense. The 'circus' Nona reaches part way through is not quite like any other circus, more perhaps of a freak show, though whether the humans or the aminal are freaks . . . ? The small band of children and beasts who journey on from the circus is not quite a fellowship in the Tolkein sense; all are rather prone to wander off on their own; they have their own motivations as well as a common one. A pit of innumerable snakes bars the way out of the animal-culled, allegedly danger-clear world. It seems to represent the fear of the unknown which cows and contains the inhabitants of this world. But the snakes have eaten themselves by the time the children reach it. Yet the land which they eventually succeed in reaching is no Shangri La. It has always been called and remains The Edge. It is unknown, wild and dangerous. But it is alive.

Another way to describe the world of this book might be as a dreamscape. But this too could potentially mislead. This is not a simplistic then-they-woke-up-and-it-was-all-a-dream story. Rather it is a dream in the sense that odd things happen without them seeming odd. Explanations are not always completely rational, or logical, but do not need to be. This world is engrossing yet distanced; perceived rather than experienced.

One of the features which helps create this pervading strangeness is that the story is written entirely in the historic present tense. This is an authorial device that can often seem rather pretentious and become tiresome to the reader, particularly when sustained over a whole book. Yet here it strangely works. It puts the reader at something of a distance from the action, almost watching from outside, more as you would experience a film rather than a novel, sympathising rather than empathising. Yet it is not as simple as this. The author sometimes slips from an objective narration and let the reader into the thoughts and feelings of a character. It is odd, but effective. Strange.

The book is easy and quick to read, but lingers long. It is thought-provoking, strong in message, but without haranguing. It is gently disturbing. It is exciting and frightening in parts. It is sometimes beautiful. It is certainly original, unique. It is a strange book - but strange in a good way.

 

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

There are a number of reasons why I did not think I was going to like this book anywhere as near as much as I actually did.

Firstly it is a collaboration and I cannot easily think of any book authored in this way that I would call truly great. The idea of authorial collaboration often puts me in mind of that oft-quoted quip that goes: a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Now I admit right off that I think this is grossly unfair to the camel, which after all, is quite wonderfully adapted to its life and habitat. But I know what they mean. A number of folk chipping in ideas, especially where they are very creative ones, can lead to an interesting and inventive amalgam. Rarely if ever, though, does it lead to something with the same clarity of concept and design, the same sleekness and integrity of vision as the creation of an inspired individual. Certainly I find this is so with fiction writing. I sometimes love it when creative minds spark ideas off each other - and I know full well that this can be a most enjoyable and stimulating way of working. But it is the individuality and integrity of a particular authorial voice which always thrills me most as a reader. So although we have two fine writers involved here (even if Cassandra Clare's principal work does not come within the sphere of writing that interests me much personally) I did not have too high hopes of this collaboration.

Of far greater concern to me though, as I initially read further and further into The Iron Trial was that so many aspects of its core narrative are Harry Potter derivative. Here is the tale of a young boy who finds himself in his first year at a wizarding 'boarding school' where he quickly establishes firm friendship, with another boy and a very bright girl in the same initial year or grade. It appears certain, too, that this first book, representing the experiences of their first year in the school (here the 'Iron Grade' in the 'Magisterium') will be the first in a series following the experiences of the three trainee magicians through each year (with, predictably, 'Bronze', 'Silver' and 'Gold' stages still to come). In school our protagonist is plagued by the hostile and spiteful attentions of a maliciously jealous fellow pupil. On the wider front, the whole world is threatened by the monstrous evil of an 'Enemy of Death' figure, who it seems was, a former outstanding pupil of the Magesterium, now turned bad.

The book does suffer, too, from what is at times a rather episodic narrative, which possibly relates to my fear that the writing may have been parcelled out between its two writers. Nonetheless is well written and indeed captures many of the strengths of The Potter books as well 'borrowing' many of their key ingredients. It has a very great deal of the same ability to fascinate and absorb, to involve and excite. Particularly, it engenders very strong and easy identifications with its young protagonists which soon develop into something close to an emotional bond. All this means that, despite reservations, it soon develops into a very good read. There are significant differences too of course which add to the distinction and reader absorbtion of this new version. Unlike enthusiastic and wonder-struck Harry, Call, the protagonist here, is a rather unwilling and uneasy student at the wizard academy. The school itself, too, is very different indeed from Hogwarts, both physically (here a maze of underground caverns, rocky passageways and canals) and in its ethos, it's teachers and its approach to magic. All of this is most vividly created and the wonderful imaginations of thes two very experienced fantasy writers very much show through. However, I am never going to be too much impressed by such an obvious clone, well written or not.

BUT THEN (and the capitals are deliberate here) things change in most interesting ways. Around two thirds of the way through, the storyline takes a number of really very shocking and most intriguing jolts that suddenly make it very different in both content and feel from HP. It becomes clear that rather than settle for a lazy semi-pastiche, the authors have very cleverly used familiar features from this very specific fantasy genre in order to set up expectations that they then intend to thwart. And they do so to quite thrilling effect. Suddenly we have a very different book and a see totally different level of authorial skill. It becomes quite a read and, by the end, sets up eager anticipation of the sequel.

Descriptions along the lines of 'the best thing since Harry Potter' are so overused and abused in publishers' hype as to have become, infuriating, hilarious or simply derisible. However this is the only book I have read that so well feeds on the HP tradition, but then subverts it in a shocking but totally enthralling and entertaining way. In doing so it comes close to recapturing the same quality of reading engagement as its illustrious predecessor whilst adding enough difference to be truly special.

However the jury must remain out on the impending full series until there is more to read. In a sense the big shock has now been sprung. It will be most intriguing to see how its implications are worked through. The question is can these two skilled authors maintain and develop interest through several more years at the Magesterium, in ways that are original and special enough to fulfil the promise of greatness this debut instalment now makes?

 

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Mortal Engines Quartet by a Philip Reeve


 

Some months ago I missed out this wonderful work from my full listing because it did not quite fit my definition of magical fantasy. Now I have tried to free myself from some of these sillier constraints and it just has to be included. It is without doubt one of the greats of children's literature of recent years.

The Mortal Engines quartet, now re-titled Predator Cities, (Mortal Engines, Predator's Gold, Infernal Devices, A Darkling Plain) does not have wizards but is nevertheless a most wonderful and imaginative fantasy. Probably more Sci-Fi than anything, it is, however, totally itself; unique and quite magnificent. Its inventiveness is truly magical and the spells cast by its vast array of incredibly-imagined characters are over the reader if not over each other. Its protagonists are some of the most engagingly and sensitively developed of recent creations (the kind you leave behind with almost a sense of bereavement at the end of a book) and its plot progressions are complex, rich and gripping; always vastly entertaining. It is quite simply a masterwork of contemporary children's literature - terrifying, exciting, jokey, humane, thought- provoking and staggeringly original.

 

 

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Doll Bones by Holly Black

Holly Black's best known work, The Spiderwick Chronicles, is an authorial collaboration (with Tony DiTerlizzi), as is her very recent fantasy, The Iron Trial (this time with Cassandra Clare). These books almost inevitably suffer from some lack of individual distinctiveness of voice. This is not, of course, to say that they do not do what they do exceptionally well. The enormous popularity of the Spiderwick books speaks for itself. They very effectively bring the engrossing thrill of good fantasy into the scope of very young readers. These short, accessible books provide what is probably one of the very best introductions to this genre for children who are ready to make their first moves into independent novel reading. In this sense they do for modern children what the books of Edith Nesbit did for children in the early 20th century, those of Enid Blyton for those of the postwar generations, and Roald Dahl in the later years of the century; they provide accessible reading that is at once both exciting and comforting, highly imaginative adventuring from the safety of the sofa, vicarious escape from the constraint of adults that involves no need to leave home.

For more confident and experienced young readers The Iron Trial builds from established conventions to provides what is one of the very best if-you-enjoyed-Harry-Potter-you-will-love-this reads that I have come across in a long time.

However it is in the quite remarkable, independently authored Doll Bones that I feel the writing of Holly Black really comes into its own. This is a work of truly original voice, stunning imagination, deep sensitivity and enriching humanity.

I would not really call Doll Bones a fantasy novel, yet I have no hesitation in including it here because it is in every aspect a book about fantasy. Despite any impression to the contrary that the titular doll and its accompanying dominant cover illustration might give, this is to me very much a boys' book, or at least a book about a boy. Although two of its three principal characters are girls, feisty Poppy and the somewhat dreamier Alice, we only really know and discover them in so far as the book's real protagonist, Zach, comes to know and discover them. Although not a first person narrative, we see them, and indeed the whole world of the book through his eyes.

The girls are the collaborators in Zach's world of 'play' and they share an elaborate and ongoing game of imaginative world-building and role enactment, supported by their various collections of old toys, dolls and action figures, who represent its cast of heroes and villains. The lives of these three children are rich in story and enriched by make-believe. They clearly read widely and then use their own imaginations to extend and elaborate the worlds they have found in their books, to make them 'real' for themselves and to keep themselves within them. Their sharing in this 'play' bonds them closely together in a very special friendship.

Yet Zach is twelve. He is on the verge of growing past such things, or at least in the eyes of many around him. However he is not yet ready to move on. Although he sometimes feels he should, he does not really want to.

The catalyst of both the action and the development in the story is Zach's father who particularly desperately wants his son to 'get real' and 'man up'. He almost succeeds in destroying the boy's imaginary world when one day he removes and destroys the action figures which are Zach's story props.

Devastated, Zach feels he can no longer 'play' with the girls. His characters have been killed off and therefore the whole game terminated. But Poppy soon succeeds in reeling him back in by taking one of their existing characters, an antique doll from a cabinet in her home, and building around it a new and 'spooky' story about a girl wo was killed and whose bones were subsequently ground down to create the china from which the doll is made. This doll now wishes to be taken home and buried there so that she can find 'closure' and rest.

Both of the girls in the story introduce a confusion between imagination and reality, although in very different ways. Poppy wants so much to keep him sharing her story life that she gets him to play out in actuality a fantasy adventure, the quest to quiet the 'ghost' of the titular doll. Alice, on the other hand, although ambivolently still attached to the imaginative world of their 'play', wants to pull Zach back with her to the real world because of embryonic romantic feelings for him.

Whether or not this is a real ghost story remains ambiguous; it is the tale of the doll and the way in which Zach is drawn in to acting it out which is far more important.

In this book Holly Black has stepped aside from writing in the fantasy tradition itself, although it is that very tradition which so influences her characters. It is clear that Zach, Poppy and Alice are avid readers and the books of Tolkein, Rowling, Riorden, Paver and their like are what feed their imaginations. In contrast, her own book, for me, sits in that wonderful tradition of American children's fiction where the very real issues of its its young protagonists are played out through exploration of their imaganitive lives. I suppose the classic of the genre is Katherine Patterson's The Bridge to Terabithia, although there are other wonderful,examples from the likes of Betsy Byers, Lowis Lowry, and more recently Anne Ursu's Breadcrumbs.

Yet Holly Black's creation is not in the least derivative. It takes an imaginative, sensitive boy's issues in beginning to face adolescence and the emerging demands of 'being a man' and explores them through his interactions with two girl friends, each going through their own growing. It is both an exciting adventure and an intriguingly spooky story. Superficially it is a reckless road trip, inwardly it is a magical, mystical quest.

The book's greatest triumph of all is that its resolution is quite wonderfully affirmative. At its end Zach, together with Poppy and Alice, faces a real future which is uncertain and very probably difficult. But he has learned that it is possible to live out and, indeed, fulfil a quest; stories can and will continue, imagination will still play a huge part in his life. The corollary is that stories can play a part in all our lives too. We need never grow out of them. And this is a wonderful message.

It is a book for which fully deserves the accolades and awards it has achieved. It is a small masterpiece and a must for imaginative boys everywhere. It should become another classic of the canon.