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.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

A Cage of Roots, Storm Weaver by Matt Griffin

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.

 

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

Knights of the Borrowed Dark by Dave Rudden

Yet another book where a hard-done-by kid is summoned from obscurity to become a hero (demi-god, wizard, whatever) and defeat evil monsters? I can take it or leave it. No, actually I would rather leave it. Whilst genuinely rejoicing in the huge number of children whose reading will be supported and encouraged, my own 'to read' pile is teetering with so much potentially imaginative and innovative kids' fantasy that I need to give my time to that.

So, am I glad that I didn't leave this one.

To start with, it starts with: 'Looking back, it had been a mistake to fill the orphanage with books.' The thought is that of orphanage Director, Ackerby. The implication is soon clear. Acherby=bad, therefore books=good. Within its first few pages this novel strongly promotes books (big cheers), libraries (bigger cheers) and strong boy characters who are avid readers (massive cheers!). Perhaps this is my sort of book after all. Its heart is certainly in the right place.

And the start turns out to be just that, just the start. This book has three staggering qualities that thrill my readerly sensibilities, sustain my inward cheers and demand review superlatives aplenty. How almost disastrously misleading were my pre-reading impressions. If ever a book was not to be missed . . .

Firstly, it oozes the highest quality writing, the best crafted, most imaginative, playful, original, communicative use of language that I have encountered in a debut children's novel for a very long time. (Possibly not since I first read France's Hardinge's deliciously loquacious Fly by Night ten years or so ago.) What is it with the Irish and wonderful writing? Dave Ruddock reveals in a postscript Q&A that his childhood influences were the likes of J K Rowling,Tamara Pierce and Roald Dahl. However he also seems to have at least an armful of the blood of such compatriots as WB Yeats, James Joyce and Shamus Heaney.

Examples of illuminating imagery abound: 'Its headlights switched on with a sound like lightning hitting a cushion'; 'The road looped around the mountain like a tailor's measuring tape.' It is not that the words are fancy. It is that they are perfectly chosen to conjure the picture. And sometimes it is as simple, and as simply brilliant as: 'The sky fell as rain.' So cleverly using 'the sky' rather than 'rain' as the subject of 'fell' is enough to evoke both deluge and abject misery in the most powerful way. Masterful.

In creating vocabulary for the phenomena of his particular magical world Dave Rudden cleverly draws on pre-existing language roots, in this case essentially Latin. This isn't the degree of extreme linguistic sophistication of Tolkein, but the genuine derivations give his terms the resonance of age and authenticity compared with the contorted alphabetic disharmonies of so many invented fantasy coinings. And those occasional children who do go so far as to look words up will get the extra little thrill of discovering that 'Tenebrae' relates to the Latin for shadows or darkness.

Of course, many young readers will not be strongly conscious of the skill with language which underpins this book. They will however be exposed to it, even if unaware, and this is in itself an important thing. Further, though, what this language does is lift the characters, locations and action vividly off the page, and of this they cannot help but be aware.

The second quality of Dave Rudden's writing complements the first ideally; he imagines with striking clarity, depth and detail. This is storytelling which carries you right into the heat of the action as well as into the hearts and minds of its protagonists. You know every person intimately, see every place as if with your own eyes. You breathlessly share every riveting moment and you vicariously live every thrilling, terrifying, exciting scene.

This author's monsters may have much of the comic book about them (although they are no less terrifying for that) but his protagonists are beautifully drawn. Denizen, the thirteen year old principal of these, might be plucked from an orphanage, but he is no clichéd story-book orphan. Rather he is drawn with a real depth of human understanding for his situation and for the outlook on life it can produce. He does not sentimentally hope to re-find his lost parents, but, rather. desperately, almost obsessively needs information about who they were. His down-to-earth acceptance of life, coloured with no little cynicism, often maintained and expressed even in the midst of the most unimagined horrors, can be as touching as it is amusing. His core humanity is both inspiring and heart-rending. Similarly the other young characters, Simon, his best friend from the orphanage, and the two prominent girl characters are beautifully drawn. Adults too are far from one-dimensional, and their complex developments, shape and enrich the story quite wonderfully.

And that leads on to the third of this writer's outstanding qualities. Despite a certain been-there-done-that feeling in the story's core premise, his narrative turns out to be exceptional in its power and originality of developement. This is in fact no clichéd or derivative regurgitation but a surprising, sometimes shocking, and always edge-of-the-seat exciting story, thrillingly told. Having very recently finished reading Sally Green's magnificent Half Bad trilogy (see my post from April '16) I would say that this was somewhat closer to a younger readers' version of that than to, say, Harry Potter or Percy Jackson. KOTBD is in no way derivative of Half Bad, and there are innumerable differences, it is a question of quality, power and dark potency as much as anything.

What this writer has in spades is the ability to envisage with amazing sensitivity and detail. This is combined with his masterful ability to craft language, source words, turn phrases and conjure metaphors which will convey those pictures vividly. He has a poet's power of image which here he uses in the service of the very best, most exciting of comic book/video game storytelling. It makes him very special and raises this book far, far above the level of most other examples of its now rather commonplace orphan-learns-to-fight-monsters-and-save-the-world subgenre.

There can be no doubt, not a borrowed shadow of a doubt, that KOTBD is amongst the finest examples of children's fantasy. It is classically timeless, but at the same time so original, so new, so today. We seem to be being promised a KOTBD trilogy. That there is more to come is cause for almost inexpressible excitement. I hope that after that, though, Dave Rudden will not be seduced down the route of an interminable series. Such very special writing talent needs to be used to create a whole range of diverse wonders.

Late last year we lost, tragically young, a most promising Irish born children's writer in Nigel McDowell. There can, of course, be no direct replacement. However in Dave Rudden we now have another young Irish author who has the potential not only to rival mega sellers like Rick Riordan and Deren Landy but to join the ranks of the real greats in contemporary writing for children with the likes of Philip Reeve, Frances Hardinge and Kenneth Opel.

KOTBD gets my very highest recommendation. A rare honour. (See list page.)

Fortunately for US readers, this gem seems to be coming your way later this year.

 

Monday, 2 May 2016

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Just at the moment in the UK it is hard to miss this book. It is piled high on the stands and prominent in the in the windows of many a high street bookstore. That is because it is the current Waterstone's 'Book of the Month'.* And this time they seem to have got it right. This is not just the next big seller. It is also a fine work of children's literature - a thoroughly enchanting read, in every sense.

We seem to have done remarkably well recently for new authors writing children's fantasy with strong female leads. In fact this one really has two - probably! Readers of this blog will know that I recently enormously enjoyed Abi Elphinstone's new series (see post from March of this year). This even newer book is probably for just slightly older readers. Although still very accessible, and enormously enganging, for a 'Middle Grade' audience, as well as those egding above, this is a more sophisticated and multi layered read.

The Girl of Ink and Stars is set in a fantasy world, and a somewhat indeterminate time, but one feeling rather earlier than our own. The island on which the story is enacted, which could indeed be considered a character in itself, has once sailed the oceans a free spirit. However, it now finds itself anchored to the sea bed through some sort of volcanic fusion. In the classic way of fantasy lands, it comes complete with hand drawn maps, too. Indeed maps are an integral element of the narrative as well as a feature of the striking physical design of the book itself.

Fantasy setting apart, however, this book is rather hesitant to commit itself fully to this particular genre. It could almost be called a be called a story in search of an identity - but in a good way, in a very good way. In fact 'indeterminate' is an apt word with which to describe this novel. And therein lies its great strength, its mesmerising hold. It is elusive. Wonderfully, originally elusive. In an entirely enchanting way. Its magic is not in the spells of wizards, but in the power of dream.

For me the telling had different, and most intriguing resonances at different times. It is the tale of a young girl's journey but it takes the reader on a (literally) fascinating one too. In the early stages it feels like a story of schoolgirls in a bygone age, almost Anne of Green Gables. It then turns into a narrative about a repressive regime, which reminded me rather of cotton plantations in the southern states and their despotic 'overlords'. Later when protagonist, Isa, sets off into the forgotten and uncharted regions of the island in search of her lost friend, Governor's daughter, Lupe, she is as part of a very mixed party with the 'villain' and his thugs. It then reminded me at least a little of Jim's uneasy alliance with Silver et al when exploring Treasure Island.

However when the heart of the book, and the heart of the island, is reached myth and reality mingle inseparably in a thrilling and thought provoking way. Here the fantasy horrors may or may not be actual but they are indisputably real. This is a book where readers learn to understand more deeply, perhaps more intuitively, that myth can be a part of reality rather than an alternative to it. That there may be no outside that is truly separate from what is inside a head. That life and imagination are part of each other. Here the writing gently approaches the numinous, the metaphysical. And if the fulfilment of Isa's fantasising about her mythical heroine is not quite as she imagined it, this gives all the more power, and yet another layer of depth, emotion and thought, to a wonderful story. In the end the island is free to roam once more the oceans of imaginative reality. So is Isa. And, perhaps, the reader is just a little more free to do so too.

This is such an important theme, and quite beautifully handled by this young author in her in lyrical, enigmatic book. Her use of language is never less than evocative, often powerful and, at its best, can capture images which evoke real insight without ever tipping into new writing pretentiousness.'The threads of problems dangled in front of me, and I tried to think of a way to weave them into a solution,' says Isa, at one point. Good stuff indeed. This is a story that will map itself onto the reader's skin.

Great news for young readers across the pond too. It looks like this book is shortly to be published in The States as The Cartographer's Daughter. (To my mind, a slightly less engaging title, but let's not worry about that.) It well deserves to be widely read and will, I'm sure, soon become much loved.

Note:

*It would still be better to buy it from an independent bookshop, where that is an option. Please support them when you can.