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.