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.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Golden Specific (Mapmakers Book 2) by S.E.Grove


Currently the children's shelves at bookshops are crowded with easy reads, straightforward linear fictions with near stock characters and predictable plots. They entertain their readers with the warming escapism of silly humour or vicarious adventure. Such books are not to be belittled. The young often need the comfort of the familiar, the readily accessible, and anything that gets and keeps them reading is of considerable value. However it is also important that young readers are sometimes challenged with more complex stories, ones that introduce them to the wonderful possibilities of non-linear and multi stranded recounts. Many specialists believe that interaction with such narratives - whether in the medium of print, film, TV or indeed video games - actively contributes to the development of complex cognitive reasoning. I can well believe it. I certainly think such processing adds significantly to our understanding of interrelationships, of life and people, of thought and time, and perhaps especially to our knowledge of ourselves.

So when a work of children's fiction comes along that is brave enough to eschew condescension and challenge its young readers with multi layered complexity it is to be most warmly welcomed. When such a book not only provides challenge and its consequent reward but is hugely enjoyable too, then it is a true treasure.

This certainly applies to US author S. E. Grove's ongoing Mapmakers sequence, of which Volume Two is now available here, albeit only easily sourced through online retail. I was enthusiastic about its highly promising first book, The Glass Sentence (see my post from Jan '15), and this second is, if anything, even better; long and complex for young readers, but very exciting not least because of the wildly original, wonderfully imaginative stimulation it offers.

Other reviews have compared Mapmakers to Philip Pulman's His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass in US). The two actually have relatively little in common in terms of plot, characters or themes. What they do share however is the fact that they create stunningly rich fantasy worlds, each the product of a unique and very special authorial imagination. Each work is grounded in a place that appears initially to be much like one in our own world (Lyra's Oxford and Sophia's Boston) but which soon turns out to be not at all as we know it. Each too then extends into a vast fantasy creation much of which is again both fascinatingly like, and at the same time totally unlike, our own world and its history. What I think it is fair to say is that S E. Groves's creation is shaping up to be the most originally imaginative children's epic fantasy since Philip Pulman's.

The Golden Specific continues to explore the world of The Glass Sentence, one based on a globe that appears to share our own geography but has been devastated by a fracturing of history that has left it divided into wildly dispirate time periods or 'Ages'. In fact the consequences of this are more fully and directly explored here than in the first book. Over and above their weird simultaneous existence, these various historical ages are significantly different from those of our own world. They do contain certain familiar echoes - such as the expansion westwards into 'Indian Territory' by the early US settlers, the Spanish Inquisition, the wearing of 'plague doctor' masks in 17/18th Century Europe - but they also feature events, people and objects that we would call supernatural or magical. Here are also worlds of different politics, different cultures, different belief system, all with characteristics both familiar and strange. However all are quite wonderfully conjured and given their own reality by this author's incredible imagination and masterful pen.

Like the classic middle section of The Lord of the Rings, this installmemt of Mapmakers is told as a split narrative; it consequently has the same totally compelling engagement and drive. Sophia remains the principal character and pursues her quest for her missing parents by travelling across the Atlantic to another era where she has to engage with a hostile 'Dark Age' and seek out a magically restorative village. Alternating is the story of Theo, the book's other principal protagonist, who remains in Boston battling an old adversary and trying to prove that Spohia's uncle is innocent of murder. Interspersed again there is also a flashback first person narration by Sophia's mother of the events leading up to her and her husband's disappearance. There are stories within stories too, accessed through the uber-reality of this world's very special maps, or narrated by other characters. It is a heady brew. Sophie's adventures are not only by turns high-adrenaline and grippingly intriguing, they are also often mystical, philosophical, magical, even poetic. In contrast Theo's escapades can be gruesome and frightening, but also at times light-hearted, amusing, cartoonish, even farcical. They counterpoint the story quite wonderfully and provide just the needed respite to the more lyrical and intense threads.

A fiction of such eclectic fusions could in other hands have so easily become a disparate mash of confused and disjointed elements. However it is a testament to S. E. Grove's masterly writing that she holds all of these strands together. She ultimately constructs an intrinsic, if complex, logic even though this only manifest slowly as the novel develops. However she also leaves enough space within her narrative for readers to weft their own imaginative and cognitive bindings between the tale's multiple threads. It is actually this last skill which is probably the strongest indicator of her genius - and I do not use the word lightly. It is in these self-realised potentialities that the reader's greatest involvement lies. That involvement is, in consequence, as deep and multi layered as the narrative.

At the start of Chapter 34 the author writes this stunning passage. It is one of those rare 'Yes!' moments in reading that stopped me in my tracks and filled me with astounded admiration.

"Sophie had no notion of time passing. She was not entirely sure of where she was either. So completely had she submerged herself in the memories of the beaded map, she felt as though she had lived a year in Alvar Cabeza de Cabra's skin. She had seen the parched, harsh world as he saw it, grieved its losses as he grieved them, felt the feeble thread of hope given to him as he felt it. Somewhere, like a distant echo, she felt these things as Sophie, too."

In describing so poignantly Sophie's engagement with a magical map, S. E. Grove could not have better expressed the reader's experience of a rich, engrossing and evocative narrative like The Golden Specific. Such is this writer's astounding power of imagination and her command of language, thought, feeling and narrative that she magically creates for her audience just such a multi sensory, multidimensional map as she has invented for her characters.

Whilst, by the end of The Goldn Specific most immediate goals have been reached, much inevitably remains unresolved, and Theo's plight is nothing if not desperate. On finally closing the book readers will I'm sure be in an ambivalent position, thrilled that there is more to come, but devastated at the prospect of having to wait for it.

The very best stories are true even though they are not real. This applies strongly to this one. S. E. Grove has found human truth in wild fantasy and that is a very special talent indeed. The so aptly named Mapmakers is already a truly wonderful work, and a profoundly important one. By the time its third part is added I think there is every chance that it will prove to be one of the great works of children's literature of any age or clime.




Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Clariel (prequel to The Old Kingdom trilogy) by Garth Nix

Having discussed the importance of Australian children's writers in my last post, I realise that I have not yet actually written up here any of the recent books by the key fantasy author Garth Nix. This omission needs to be rectified as he is not only a wonderful writer in his own right but also a key influence on the fantasy genre itself. So much so that, if his YA novels seem somewhat familiar in approach and style, it must be remembered that it is he who set a trend since followed by others and not the other way around. Garth Nix is very much an originator and not an imitator.

Of course the start of what is almost certainly his most important work, the Old Kingdom trilogy (sometimes called the Abhorsen trilogy), is now some twenty years old, with Sabriel, its initial volume published in 1995. The two sequels, Lirael and Abhorsen followed in the early Noughties and this original sequence lies on the cusp of the C21 achievements I have set out to discover. In fact it is broadly contemporary in genesis with much of Harry Potter and can, in many ways, be considered the YA equivalent of that children's blockbuster in terms of its seminal significance.
However Garth Nix has far more recently produced a further substantial addition to the Old Kingdom sequence, Clariel, 2014, and this certainly qualifies as a gem amongst my recent reading. It is not only a hugely worthwhile extension of his earlier creation, but also a truly great work of fantasy fiction in its own right.
Clariel is actually a prequel to the earlier trilogy. It is set fully within the Old Kingdom, but about six hundred years before the birth of Sabriel. However there is much about her world as reimagined here that is immediately recognisable. For previous readers of the Abhorsen sequence it comes as a thrill to learn some of the history that shaped the society they already know. However it's nature as a prequel means that Clariel can also serve as a perfectly valid introduction to the Old Kingdom books, albeit without providing that same sense of illumination that it will for those already familiar with subsequent events. New readers have so much yet to discover. Whilst it is almost impossible to imagine that they will not want to go back, or perhaps rather go on, to the earlier books, Clariel does in fact also constitute a totally viable stand alone fantasy. Whichever way it is approached it is a very rich and rewarding read indeed.
In many ways Clariel epitomises what Garth Nix has achieved so fully in creating and defining high fantasy for a YA readership, even whilst it is also a shocking departure from the expected.
The first thing that this author does, and does supremely well, is to create an imagined world of extraordinary richness and detail. It is essentially a classic high fantasy world, a complex society with a broadly mediaeval feel: a highly stratified society of kings and lords, of hierarchical and powerful guilds, of downtrodden impoverished masses, but also of magic and powerful mages, of demons and monsters and of a wilder, older magic too. But these are no glib stereotypes. Everything is imagined and conveyed with rich and compelling complexity, glued together with its own convincing logic and described in vivid and telling detail. Just as tellingly conveyed is the vast topography of a whole world. In Clariel this is at its height in the creation and description of the principal city of the Old Kingdom, where streets, markets, hovels, towers and palaces all exist with staggering, often mesmerising presence. Similarly conjured for the reader are the varied landscapes of the countyside and the more rural Abhorsen House where Clariel finds herself later in the story. Garth Nix peoples this world with a staggeringly large array of beautifully drawn characters. And all of this is managed with a masterly skill which makes even his descriptive writing compelling, and fully integrated into some of the best and most enthralling storytelling I have encountered in a long time. The result of all this is a world and a book which is totally and completely involving; one which provides what I always think of as 'the Tolkein factor', a substantial immersive experience where the reader can vicariously live in a completely fantastical world which is magically imbued with a totally compelling reality.
However the key thing which Garth Nix began to do twenty years ago, so pioneering this particular genre of YA fantasy, was to place totally convincing teenage protagonists within this wonderfully rich and complex world; to tell stories which resonated emotionally with his young readership whilst still sitting with total credibility within their fantasy setting. In fact this setting created a very special context, where issues and feelings pertinent to his readers could be worked out at a 'safe' remove; allowing the process of growing towards adulthood to be explored vicariously; permitting hopes and fantasies to be pursued, perhaps even fulfilled, in a viscerally exciting way,whilst still protected from their actual consequences. This is something which he again achieves superbly in Clariel, but with the addition of further dimensions and subtleties.

Clariel is again primarily for a YA audience, although it undoubtedly also comes into the category which will enthrall and delight many adult readers too. It contains scattered sexually references, although these are very mild and never explicit. However what makes it ideally suited for YA readers is the fact that Clariel and her story are most skillful conceived to engender close identification from this particular audience. She lives fully in the world of the Old Kingdom, yet her issues are those of so many adolescents. Although aware that she is growing up, and in many ways wanting to do so, Clariel is not fully ready to enter into the 'adult' and demanding social and political world. She is on the verge of rebelling against her parents' wishes to fit her into this society and dreams instead of a future life away from other people, in the forest where she has spent an idyllic childhood. She also has a propensity towards violent outburst of anger, which she realises she must learn to master, but has not yet learned to control. Even though placed here in the context of raw magical power, this is a dilemma with which many young readers will be able to identify. Clariel is quite beautifully brought to virtual life by Garth Nix and soon engenders the reader's fully involvement with her story. We think and feel with her every moment; we share the confusion of her dilemmas and the naive optimism of her every decision.
Here it becomes very difficult to explain the real greatness of Clariel as a novel without indulging in what would be spoilers, and I would never wish at all to mar some other reader's pleasure in this way. For it is in the amazing, development of Clariel's character and story, essentially and intimately intertwined, that the genius and originally of this book lies. The directions which she takes and the outcomes of her actions are all the more devastatingly powerful because of the total reader identification which has inescapably been set up. Suffice it to say that Clariel is no Frodo figure, saving her whole world through innocent bravery. She does, in her own way, grow up and she certainly influences her world, by the end of her story - and beyond. However, the ways in which she does this are as disturbing as they are remarkable. She is a magical protagonist - but not really as we might have expected.
The result is that Clariel is one of the truly great works of fantasy fiction. It is a most notable addition to a modern classic sequence, but also a wonderful literary achievement in its own right.
One further short addition to the Old Kingdom sequence has been published very recently, although its actual writing predates Clariel. To Hold the Bridge is a novella first published in Australia in 2010, but now finally released here in a volume of Garth Nix short stories of the same name. It is the only item in the collection which relates to the Abhorsen world, and as a novella is not of the stature of the earlier works, or of Clariel which followed. It is nevertheless a very enjoyable read and an important further extension and elaboration of the Old Kingdom world.
The content of this novella is not part of the ongoing story of the Abhorsens as such nor does it involve the principal characters of any of the other volumes. However it does contribute new aspects to the topography, sociology and history of the Old Kingrom in vivid detail and as such further enriches the whole. Again, too, it treats of a young protagonist with whom easy identification is most effectively engendered. This time it is a young man, Morghan, who had been physically abused and emotionally neglected in his upbringing, who now seeks to establish an identity for himself and to carve out a significant role for himself in the world.
Although short, To Hold the Bridge still manages to engross the reader for a while in the magnificently imaginative creation that is the world of the Old Kingdom. It succeeds beautifully too in engendering involvement in the fate of a protagonist with whom it is easy to identify. Is is also far more positive in its outcome that Clariel. It may not share the greatness of the rest of the sequence, however, for those who do want to save the world, in their fantasies at least, this extra read is a wonderful quick fix.


Thursday, 6 August 2015

Song for a Scarlet Runner by Julie Hunt

Despite Australia having such a strong tradition of quality writing for children, comparatively few books by their wonderful authors seem to get onto bookshop shelves here in the UK. Of course best sellers like Garth Nix and John Flanagan are exceptions as is the brilliant Morris Gleitzman. (His Once/Now/Then/After sequence is undoubtedly a very great contribution to children's literature.) It is a delight too when treasures by fine writers such as Sonia Harnet and Karen Foxlee get published here. (See my post on Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy from March '15.) But I do know that there are many other wonderful Antipodean writers of MG and YA fiction of whom we hear far too little little over here.

It is therefore a great pleasure to discover that a real gem like Tasmanian writer Julie Hunt's latest novel is readily available online, even though not directly published in the UK; enough in fact to overcome my usual scruples about circumventing physical bookshops. Song for a Scarlet Runner has been shortlisted for a number of awards in Australia, and this is totally understandable; it is a very original, imaginative and engaging fantasy. Children here, indeed children anywhere, deserve the opportunity to have their reading experience enriched by it.

One of the qualities I value highly in new children's fiction is a degree of originality - providing of course that this is linked with quality - and this book certainly has originality aplenty. It is, refreshingly, not yet another of those fantasies where a child discovers that he/she has special powers and is destined to save the world from unspeakable evil. Far from it. In fact its general tone is something far closer to Fairy Tale, and perhaps even closer to traditional folktales. It treats, at heart, with a young girl, Peat, who is forced from her poor but cozy home to 'seek her fortune' in unfamiliar environments. Deep in the strange marshlands she is apprenticed to a storytelling wise woman. However she is subsequently used as payment for a magical pact with the sinister 'Siltman' and taken by him to an undying but unspeakably bleak alternative world. The principal thrust of the story then revolves around her actions to escape and undo the pact.

Of course this story takes elements from older tales, grounding the telling in its own traditions. However Julie Hunt reimagines everything vividly afresh. The language in which the story is told is not the rather impersonal, event-driven style of actual Fairy Tale, rather everything is conjured up in the writer's, and hence the reader's, mind in evocatively rich detail. Throughout, a sense of place, indeed of many different places, is wonderfully created. Peat's original home, and the humdrum but comfortable life she has there with with her cows; the eerily misty marshlands; the incredible, bustling underground/overground city which is the 'hub' of this imagined world; the central and powerful river; the desolate landscape of the Siltman's 'Ever'; all these are vividly painted fantasyscapes which will linger long with any reader.

This whole created world is peopled, too, with a rich range of memorable characters, brought to life with engaging originality. Central Peat, is both feisty and vulnerable. In many ways she is the classic girl protagonist, and this helps the reader to identify with every moment of her journey through the story. We laugh with her, dream with her, cringe with her, weep with her, almost breathe with her. It is brilliant storytelling. The companions who join her quest, an unpredictable creature she calls the sleek and an ancient boy with a charmingly antiquated way of speaking, are far from conventional though and add both humour and novelty. Whilst the representation of nightmare that is the Siltman is drawn with convincing chill, many of the book's other characters are neither wholly good nor wholly bad and show illuminating humanity.

Of course it is no happenstance that the novel has the feeling of a traditional tale because at its heart this is a story about storytelling, about the power of story itself. This alone would be enough to make the book a very important and powerful read. Like all great children's books, however, it is also about being a child, about growing up, and about learning what life most essentially means. It is both life affirming and life enhancing. This it achieves with affecting understanding, whilst still keeping within the bounds of what is accessible to its intended young readers.

It is rather nice too that Song for a Scarlet Runner does what it does and is what it is within a single volume, without pretention to develop into a trilogy or an even longer sequence. It is a big book in a small space. It is clever and imaginative. It is important in what it has to say about the magic of story and of life. Above all it is hugely entertaining and enjoyable.