When are fine young Irish writers for children like London buses? Sorry. I know that's trite. Although when I was a student in London, getting on for fifty years ago, it was often literally true about two buses arriving together. I don't know whether it is now. I haven't caught busses in London for many years.
Anyway, in my previous post I raved, with ample justification, about Dave Rudden, and now, hot on his wheels, I have found myself reading Matt Griffin*. His books are actually very different from Knights of the Borrowed Dark, and if anthing even more Irish. In fact they are more Irish than an Irishman in a (genuine) Irish pub**. They are set in Ireland, have Irish characters with Irish names, and most import of all, they draw deeply on Irish myth and folklore. And that's just great.
Of course there is a most important heritage of children's fantasy that sources much older, cultural stories. It goes right back to the seminal works of Alan Garner and was then developed magnificently by other all time greats like Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander. However the majority of such fantasies mine the more Welsh Celtic sources, Arthuriana or The Mabinogion, to conjure their magical worlds. A few years ago, Kate Thompson was notable for delving into Irish traditions (see my posts from July '14), but her magical world was a relatively good-humoured one of Little People and fiddle music. Matt Griffin's fantasy creation is, in total contrast, one that lies at the very darkest edge of fairy tale. It is a nightmare world of viciously cruel goblins, of being buried alive, of a child's life unravelled to provide the thread for a grotesque weaving loom. It is a place not of nursery story but of nightmare, not of Tir Na Nog, but of an 'other' magical pre Ireland where life literally withers away after forbidden return. Yet his creation and his narrative are all the more resonant and potent, and indeed all the more terrifying, for their link to the tropes and archetypes of ancient tales.
One of the particular strengths of Matt Griffin's narrative is placing within this dark fairy tale context a quartet of young protagonists who are fully contemporary in their language and outlook. They are every inch kids of today, clever, lippy, streetwise. These are certainly no Pevensie children, stumbling with wide eyed wonder into Narnia. They most assuredly do not go gentle into the black night*** of this magic world. Even though they eventually show the inner courage, integrity and loyalty that characterises their role in such stories, this is most believably overlayed with a deal of cynicism and, understandably, no little terror. Their down to earth realism makes them completely engaging, and their encounters with dark magic all the more disquieting.
Having just read them (almost) back to back, it is impossible for me not to compare Knights of the Borrowed Dark and Cage of Roots/Storm Weaver. In terms of language, Matt Griffin does not have the intense and remarkable power of imagery of Dave Ruddock, but instead he selects nouns, verbs and judicious adjectives with great potency and thus succeeds in describing vividly and narrating tensely. His, in some ways simpler, language has its own remarkable effectiveness.
Knights of the Borrowed Dark, with much more of the comic book and video game in its fantasy world building, perhaps feels the more contemporary.The Cage of Roots sequence is more 'classic', but it is certainly none the worse for that. It is a gripping and powerful read, a potent and imaginative refreshing of many of the tropes and themes of great children's fantasy - with more than a touch of darkness thrillingly added. And of course that wonderful whack of Irishness.
Matt Griffin uses very effectively too some of the classic fiction techniques: starting in mid action, interweaving split narratives. It is most skillful writing in any terms - and, as an authorial debut, exceptional. His already much admired artist's imagination, together with its expertly crafted realisation, clearly transfers readily into his writing.
Often in trilogies/quartets, second books can drop off a little in quality. But not so here. Storm Weaver, as much a continuation as a sequel, fully maintains the momentum and visceral excitement of the first book, with Ayla's 'power ' growing, the other kids developing engagingly, their involvement with the 'other Ireland' enriched by further interaction with both 'ancients' and more dark adversaries. From the ending, it is clear that this sequence is not yet complete - a cause for eager, indeed impatient, anticipation.
Assuming that any forthcoming completion will be as good as the first books (and there is every encouragement here to think so) then this will be a very fine and important addition to the cannon of quality children's fantasy literature.
Matt Griffin provides his own art work and the simple but darkly elegant covers and strong, menacing illustrations make these books stunning packages in their own right as well complementing the text superbly. It is a shame there are , at present, no hardback editions to collect for posterity, but surely this sequence will soon get the US publication it well merits, and hopefully then.
*To be strictly fair Matt Griffin's first book came out well before Dave Rudden's, but I didn't catch up with it until his second, Strorm Weaver, was published last month. Life is so subjective.
**And not a shillelagh of leprechaun in sight.
***Sorry, that's Welsh.