Here are the occasional reflections of a joyful traveller along the strange pathways of fantasy and adventure. All my reviews are independent and unsolicited.

I started this blog intending to write only about children's fantasy ('magic fiction') but have since widened my scope to include any work of children's fiction that I have read and enjoyed. Fantasy will still probably predominate, as it remains a favourite genre, but I cannot now resist sharing thoughts on other wonderful books too. (MG and occasionally YA.)

Here you will find only recommendations, never negative reviews. If I read a book which I feel is less than wonderful (which happens far more often than not) then I simply don't write about it. This blog is, rather, a celebration of the most exciting books I stumble across on my meandering reading journey, and of the important, life-affirming experiences they offer. It is but a very small thank you for the wonderful gifts their writers give.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Beastkeeper by Cat Hellisen

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

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

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

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

 

Saturday, 12 December 2015

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sunday, 6 December 2015

My children's books of the year 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Thursday, 3 December 2015

SandRider (Todhunter Moon Book 2) by Angie Sage

 

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

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

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

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

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

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