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, 26 May 2015

The Eighth Day by Dianne K Salerni

 


This is a remarkable book and a hugely entertaining one. I am a slow reader and it only took me a couple of days to finish. For many I suspect it will be a one sitting, perhaps even an up-half-the-night job. It drew me in and along very powerfully.

The core subject matter of the book, yet another 'tweenage' orphan boy* who discovers on his birthday that he has embryonic magic powers, is so ubiquitous as to have become rather a cliché of children's fantasy fiction. However (and in this case it is a big 'however'), this author brings two highly imaginative and original ingredients to this very basic recipe which lift the results far above the commonplace.

The first is the authorial, and narrative, conjuring of the titular eighth day, an additional twenty four hours between Wedneday and Thursday of which only those few with a particular heritage, and hence particular magical powers, can experience. Plot devices involving abnormalities of time in fiction often become problematic and raise all kinds of logical issues. However , once the basic implausibility is accepted, Dianne Salerni here handles her characters' extra day with at least a fictionally convincing rationale, and exploits its intriguing possibilities well.

Her second imaginative coup lies not simply in linking her 'magical' invention to figures from Arthurian legend - Arthur Pendragon himself, Merlin, the Lady of the Lake and their like - but in making her actual characters the largely degenerate distant descendents of these fabled forebears. This is no Percy Jackson scenario, where ancient gods and heros intervene directly in the modern world, or act through their Demi-God offspring. In Eighth Day, the modern remnants of the Arthurian bloodlines do indeed still inherit some magical and mystical abilities, but they are more inclined to use them to unlawful ends than to fulfilling chivalrous quest. Many of them lead lives that range from petty larceny through mobster criminality to the running of small mercenary armies, complete with modern weaponry.

It is this, in many ways anomalous shift, which makes Eighth Day so fresh feeling. It gives its central battle of goodies v baddies a different and contemporary quality, whilst still rooting it in a fantasy 'magic'. Furthermore, for much of the novel it is not always clear to either the protagonist or the reader who actually is 'good' and who 'bad'. One of the principal ways in which we are drawn so quickly into this narrative is by sharing protagonist Jax's intense curiosity as to exactly who other people are and what they are up to. Clever writing.

Eighth Day is very much an urban fantasy, indeed it is very much a fantasy of urban America. It tells the story from the point of view of an American kid from a socially and economically deprived background, so it is inevitably written in U.S. vernacular, including much slang. As UK born and bred it is impossible to know quite how this reads to its US audience, presumably as very ordinary and everyday. To an English reader it creates a certain 'otherness', although this is balanced by the familiarity of the many US films and TV shows we watch. However, context almost always makes meaning perfectly clear and the end result of its pervasive stateside vocabulary is to set the book very firmly in its time and place. If it is ever published over here, which I most certainly hope it will be, it would be a big mistake to try to Anglicise its language.
 
What all this very authentic feeling American urban context does is ground the story and lend its undoubtedly fanciful elements more fictional credibility than they would otherwise have. They are an essential part of what makes this story so particular and so engrossing.
 
There is one other particularly strong element of the storytelling in this book and that is the rich and sensitive handling of relationships, particularly those between Jax and his so-called carer, Riley and between Jax and the book's other principle protagonist, Evangeline. It is intriguing and absorbing to follow the convoluted but ultimately very touching development of both these pairings. Evangeline is the girl 'imprisoned' both in the house next door and in the eighth day itself, although we, and Jax, gradually discover far more about her than this. There are several points in the story where the narrative perspective splits and we are given Evangeline's view on unfolding events. This helps to highten both understandings and misunderstandings between the two in a most involving way. Again very skillful writing.

In its final quarter the novel becomes much more overtly fanciful. It's setting moves to an ancient ritual site in Mexico and its action develops into something of a cross between a James Bond shoot out and Harry Potter's ultimate battle with the embodiment of evil. However by this time we are well and truly hooked in. Incredible or not, it is very exciting and we really care that Jax, Evangeline and Riley (not to mention the whole human race) come out of it well.
 
A sequel, The Inquisitor's Mark, is already published. I have had to source it from the US, so it is taking a while. However it is due to arrive any day now and I shall pounce on it with pleasure. According to the author's website a third book is also in the pipeline. Further instalments are, at this stage, much to be welcomed, although I do hope that Dianne Salerni can fashion a sequence which moves and develops to fulfil the promise of The Eighth Day. It would be shame to see this degenerate into a repetitive, formulaic series.
 
Meanwhile please may we have this fine book published in the UK.
 
Footnote
*There are of course many good reasons for the prevalence of orphans in children's fiction and a quick Internet search brings up any number of popular or scholarly explanations. Orphan protagonists clearly attract and engage young readers, who happily embrace their particular potential for turning out to be special. By identifying with orphans, children can enjoy the vicarious freedom from parental constraints for which they themselves are not actually ready. Nevertheless, as someone who reads countless children's fantasies, I do wish more authors would now be bold enough to break this particular mould.

 

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Story Singer by Sheila Rance

 

After a long fallow period in my reading of recent children's fantasy, finds that I considered high quality were starting to feel like hen's teeth. It was therefore a delight to discover the publication of the latest novel in Sheila Rance's quite brilliant 'magical reality' sequence, captivatingly started in Sun Catcher and beautifully followed up with Storm Chaser. Also set in her imagined version of the Bronze Age, this third volume, Story Singer, is no disappointment. In fact quite the contrary, it is an entrancing read and full confirmation that this sequence (which, at least as yet,appears to have been given no portmanteau title) is one of the truly great works of children's fantasy fiction. It scores amazingly highly for the quality of both its imagination and its writing and must surely become a classic alongside the likes of Diana Wynne Jones's Dalemark quartet, a work to which it seems cousin, albeit a distant one. Perhaps it is the hand-loom weaving of a magical story coat, in actuality and as image, that prompts this comparison. Certainly such a garment features prominently in The Spellcoats and quite magically pervades the whole of Sheila Rance's silk-crafted story. However broad comparison is not intended to the detrement of either work, exactly the reverse.

There are elements of Story Singer and it's precursors which seem to put them into the category of high fantasy - and the strap line on the cover referencing Game of Thrones reinforces this. There is certainly a kingdom with an unstable political situation. Despite young protagonist,Maia, having established a claim to the throne by proving herself 'Sun Catcher' she is still without a crucial 'Story Singer'. Her warrior-weaver father too is without the wherewithal to weave the mystical silk which is the fabric of the kingdom's power in every sense. Maia's scheming and malevolent sister is set to re-establish her own power through her thought-stealing daughter, Caspia. With her fierce husband she has enlisted the support of the half-beast Wolf Kin and their vicious Wulfen. Against them are arraying the forces of the noble Eagle Hunters and the Amazon-like Archers. All is set for monumental conflict. This is indeed the stuff of high fantasy.

However this basic 'goodies v baddies' scenario is filled with much that is far more subtle and ambiguous. I hope that the Game of Thrones reference helps to find readers for this wonderful creation but it is really far too crude and superficial a comparator. Whilst large scale conflicts and their consequences do background and drive the story, and come to the fore in its climax, they are in many important ways not what this story is about. It is the story of four young people. It is the story of Maia, who has only very newly found her talent and destiny as the Sun Catcher, of Kodo the boy who used to be a sea lizard rider, of Var the theif-assassin, and of the thought-stealing Caspia, Maia's rival for the queenly role. It is in many ways their personal, almost intimate story. It is a story of personalities and ambivalent relationships; of friendships and rivalries; of their shifting patterns of trust and mistrust in each other. Like other great works of children's fiction, it is about each discovering who they are, what they can and could do; of making choices about who they want and need to be.

It is a beautiful, intimate, often moving story, told in a kaleidoscopically fractured narrative, with constantly shifting viewpoints which illuminate each character with ever new insights. At the same time it is a mesmerisingly beautiful piece of writing which almost miraculously melds everything into an undulating, lyrical flow. This masterly author's language and thoughts continually create provoking images, often poetic in their intensity. She captures a world and vision that shimmers and shifts with the same elusive magical voice as the whispering silk which is one of her stories pervasive motifs.

Through all of these books Sheila Rance has wonderfully evoked her period and setting, drawing on much detailed research, but feeding it organically into her storytelling. Landscape, and her young characters' sensitivity to it, plays a very significant part in all these books. In the earlier ones it was often the sea, the shore and the cliffs. Here it is more the sands and scrubland of desert that are central and to which Maia and others, through the author herself, so sensitively respond. It is really quite magical writing.

By the end of this volume the story has reach a satisfying conclusion, although it is not so much the choices of its most apparent key characters, Maia and Kodo, which in the end precipitate this resolution, but those of the assassin-cum-theif, Var. Fortunately too, though, there are enough loose ends to promise more to come. Amongst others, Caspia's assisted escape and Maia's fascination with the desert rock drawings which tell of either her past or her future leave doors open to potential further tales of this world and its young 'magicians'. I sincerely hope they will be written soon.

Once again this book is greatly enhanced by quite thrilling art work from the highly talented Geoff Taylor. Some chapter headers are clearly new, whilst others character drawings establish continuity from the previous stories in the sequence. Too often I find that illustrations, particularly those of key characters, spoil works of this kind by failing to meet my imagined expectations. Not so here. Geoff Taylor's drawings, evocative but not over delineated, really do add greatly to both the atmosphere and aesthetic of the book, without impinging at all on my own mental picturing.

As a avid collector as well as a voracious reader of children's books, I have only one gripe. It is a tragedy that the usually excellent publisher, Orion,has not produced a hardback of this book, even though they did for the previous two. Please can we have a completion of the set. As a contemporary classic of the genre this sequence really needs preserving in durable first edition.

 

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

The Nowhere Emporium by Ross MacKenzie

This is a delightful book, a joy of a book, a veritable feast for the imagination.

As with the one in my previous post, this is very much a children's book, but this time a very accessible one too. It would indeed provide a wonderful way into fantasy for any coming new to the genre as well as a treat for young readers seeking further escape into a magical world. Even though the novel has two narrative strands, with key incidents from the earlier life of magician Lucien Silver interspersed through the main tale, this important back story is always well signposted. Its inclusion would make a good introduction to the added challenge, and excitement, of a slightly more complex structure.

The story revolves around benevolent Silver's creation of a magical time-and-place-travelling emporium, whose 'customers' are treated to a panoply of wonders. Even though they do not remember these after their visit, the experience nonetheless enrichs their lives. The young protagonist, orphan Daniel, is taken on as Silver's apprentice but, together with the magician's mysterious and spikey daughter, is left to try to rescue the situation when his master disappears and the emporium begins to crumble around them.

To young readers coming new to the story it will, I'm sure, provide a fresh, engaging and exciting escape into what is itself a world of imagination and wonder. To a far older reader like me, who has been around all the roundabouts of children's magical fantasy many times, it feels like a mashup of many precedents, whether conscious of unconscious. In here I find echos of numerous other works: there are elements of Doctor Who, of Dahl's Chocolate Factory, of the Sorcerer's Apprentice, of Harris's Chocolat, and even something of Blyton's Faraway Tree, along with many others. However this feeling of déjà vu is not a negative, for what author Ross MacKenzie does is take many classic elements of magical fantasy and skilfully rework them into a delightful new tale of his own.

Part of what makes The Nowhere Emporium so successful is the strength of its writing. In common with The Box and the Dragonfly, which I recently reviewed, its prose is so skilfully composed that it always falls comfortably on the reader's inward ear. Its simplicity belies its art and it communicates directly and powerfully, propelling the narrative most effectively. Its characters are most engaging too. Although orphan Daniel, his aprentice master Silver, and the malevolent Vindictus Sharpe are all essentially stock characters, they are effectively drawn. Young Daniel particularly is captivating in his mixture of naïvety and determination; his growth into his own magical potential captures every child's hopes and fears as it always does in the best work of this genre. There is additional interest too in the particulaly strongly conceived character of the magician's chippy but touchingly loyal daughter, Ellie. The narrative rattles ahead apace, with short telling chapters, which lead quickly from one page-turner to another. Consequently the reader is securely led through an increasing threat of disaster to a warm and satisfying denouement. No surprises here, but sometimes feelgood suits best. In the end, and true to the genre, an exciting if uncertain future lies ahead for the young protagonists - and perhaps a sequel for the reader? Who knows.

There is one more massive difference however between the core nature of this book and that of The Box and the Dragonfly. In that work the author was at pains to explore explanations for all its supernatural elements, leading the reader into complex reflections on what might or might not be possible and what the consequences might be if it were. Here there is no such depth.Many things happen without any rational explanation. However in this instance it does not matter at all. It is enough for the characters in the story, and ultimately for the reader, that things happen by magic. This book is nowhere close to rational. It is pure whimsy. It is something approaching a children's equivalent of Erin Morgenstern's Night Circus. The whole book is a flight of fancy. It is a celebration of imagination: the characters', the author's and, of course, the reader's. As such it is a wonderful thing in its own right. It is well worth a place on any child's shelves and the deserved successor of many older classics of the genre.