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.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Goldenhand by Garth Nix

 

Garth Nix's YA Old Kingdon (Abhorsen) Trilogy, now 15-20 years old, is undoubtedly one of the greats of contemporary fantasy. It remains a must read for any who don't yet know it, and, I suspect, provides a periodic indulgent re-read for many who do. A couple of related shorter works aside, we waited a long time for a follow-up. However last year brought us the magnificent Clariel (see my post from August '15) which was actually a prequel to the original trilogy, set hundreds of years earlier. Now, at last we have a continuation of the story of Lirael in the recently released Goldenhand. And whilst the wait has been long, patience, or perhaps impatience, is now magnificently rewarded. 

This is high fantasy of the very finest. Through the whole sequence Gareth Nix has built a stunningly rich, imaginative world of magic that is completely convincing in it own terms and hence totally absorbing. In Goldenhand he exploits what he has created to the full. There is one new major character, Ferin , the messenger girl from one of the tribes of the north, but largely this is a return to many characters introduced and developed through the original trilogy. In a sense, then, this new addition to the Old Kingdom sequence is not strikingly different or original. What is on offer in spades, however, is the most wonderful storytelling; gripping action with hugely interesting, rich characters, and some really jolting shocks. There is, too, enough romance to be endearing, without so much as to be cloying. Garth Nix's masterly construction and control of narrative is an object lesson to lesser writers. In the early parts he uses the technique of alternating story strands, which when as skilfully handled as this, is guaranteed to keep the pages turning. He builds and relieves tension and continually develops characters to always maintain absorption. 

So many current YA fantasies are written rather pointedly for a teen girl audience. Despite the principal protagonists being female, this is of much broader appeal. True sword and sorcery in the best sense. 

By the time of the story's truly riveting climax, the author has skilfully pulled together threads not only from this novel but from the whole sequence. It is as devastating as it is delightful; you gasp and tingle at one and the same time. Here are old 'friends' as well as endings, on many levels. By the close there are in fact few loose ends, so this feels like it could be the last of the sequence. On the one hand, this is hugely satisfying. On the other it is to be fervently hoped that this is not to be. This world is too special and, by this stage, too much a part of the reader to feel anything other than bereavement at the thought of losing it. At least there is always the option of starting to read it all again from the beginning. 

This whole sequence is a rare example of what I consider a 'Lord-of-the-Rings-read'; one which feels something akin to that first experience of reading Tolkien, with its all-absorbing depth of engagement and enjoyment. Such quality of fantasy fiction is to be constantly yearned for, but very infrequently found. Thank goodness Garth Nix is around to give it to us. 



Monday, 14 November 2016

The Left-Handed Fate by Kate Milford

 

I was delighted when I discovered the children's novels of Kate Milford (see my post from Sept. '16) and this, her latest book, has only added to my considerable admiration. One of the remarkable features about her work is that whilst each of her books is in many respects quite different from the others, and they certainly do not constitute a sequence as such, that are all related in some way. Sometimes it is a place that is common, sometimes a character, for example the same character who has appeared as an adult in one book, appears as a young boy in another, with a much earlier setting. This means that each book builds further understanding of her world, bringing revelations which excite, thrill and intrigue, as they build into an ever more rich and amazing storyscape. 

Another remarkable feature common to all the books is an idiosyncratic mixing of genuine history and hugely imaginative fantasy. It is an alalgam which ought not to work. It is one which would perhaps leave some actual historians aghast. But in the hands of this fine writer it actually comes off superbly and gives a reading experience which is as refreshing as it is enchanting, as magical as it is educative, and, at the end of it all, as moving as it is enthralling. Kate Milford's history is always exceedingly well researched and convincingly recreated. It is generally place specific, as well as time  specific, featuring US locations, and covering periods from the 19th and early 20th centuries. This American history should not put off UK readers. It is totally accessible, always well enough contextualised and explained to make complete sense, and is indeed all the more fascinating for being rather less familiar. This is most valuable education in hugely enjoyable fictional form. We, over here, should be more aware of the history and heritage of our global neighbours across the Atlantic. 

As the other principal ingredient in her fictional mix, Kate Milford's fantasy is also in many ways very American. It owes more to folklore and sometimes even religion than do the more conventional mythology-based worlds of dragons, wizards and the like. It is however equally imaginative, with the added thrill of originality, quirkiness and surprise. This strange and sometimes frightening fantasy quietly shares the reality of her history, lurking beneath the surface, or existing in startling parallel. Her world is a fictional joy, and very hard to describe. You really must explore it for yourself.

In this book her historical setting is primarily the English/French conflict of the Napolionic Wars, specifically its working out in a naval context. However since much takes place on a ship sailing in and out of US ports, primarily Baltimore, this is further complicated by the US declaration of war on England. However all the complexities of this situation are very skilfully and smoothly  explained as an integral part of the narrative. The whole first part of the book struck me as very much a children's version of Patrick O'Brian.* And I mean that very much as a compliment. I have long loved O'Brian and this homage pays tribute without being in any way derivative. The Left-Handed Fate has all the features which make O'Brian's adult novels such a wonderful read; history brought vividly into focus, the authentic detail of life at sea on a large sailing ship, exciting sea battles and engagements, yet all underpinned with the human interest of hugely engaging protagonists and a rich cast of minor characters. It is quite beautifully done. Kate Milford's young characters really are endearing, often highly amusing and sometimes deeply moving too. Their banter is a constant delight and so are the relationships which develop, shift and grow, both between them and with the adults. 

Kate Milford does not shy away from really important issues either. There is an underlying questioning of war and what it means, and indeed a strong thread of pacifism throughout. There are very real and very moving passages about war and it's realities, not least the  account by a sailor of French nationality of the horrors he witnessed in his homeland during the massacres in the Vendee, following the post-revolutionary 'terror'. 

On top of all this though is the fantasy element; demonic villains, a supernatural ship and its  terrifying crew, an amazing ancient machine, whose nature turns out to be as magical as it is scientific (or in the book's terms 'philosophical '). Above all is the truly amazing town/port of Nagspeake, which has to be seen (that is, read about) to be believed. It is truly every bit as imaginative and magical a creation as anything in J K Rowling. Simply joyous. 

I cannoy recommend this book highly enough for young UK readers, and indeed any in the US or elsewhere who have not yet discovered it. It is a wonderful read, and an important new addition to a corpus of work which is even greater than its individual parts. This is a highly significant writer in terms of the canon of fine children's literature worldwide, with a such a refreshingly unique imagination that you really should not miss her.

Like the two books I reviewed previously, this is a handsome physical volume. I have only one small quibble though. Although attractive in themselves, I find the illustrations don't quite work for me. The very simplified drawings of the characters are too cartoony and don't really accord with the convincing and untimately very touching 'reality' that this author achieves with her textual creations. I far prefer the pictures in the two earlier books, which to me enhance the text far better.  But this is a very minor quibble and does not detract from the considerable enjoyment I derived. 

I have set aside another of her recent books, Greenglass House, for my Christmas read,  and must also catch up on the two novellas which are currently only available as e-books. That is a format I do not really much like reading, but for Kate Milford I will certainly make an exception. 

*Note: I had already written the draft of this review when I read  Kate Milford's acknowledgment of the influence  of Patrick O'Brian's naval novels on The Left-Handed Fate. So I got that one right at least. 

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Black Light Express by Philip Reeve

 


Book cover hype can be exactly that, hype, but in this instance the quote from The Sunday Times is spot on.  For sheer power of imaginative world building Philip Reeeve is hard to beat. The same can be said of his storytelling, his character drawing and the sheer quality of his masterful writing.

I welcomed the first book in this new trilogy as possibly his strongest creation since the original ground-breaking and now classic Mortal Engines (Predator Cities) quartet. For a detailed review of Railhead please see my post here from 0ct 2015.

Middle books in even very fine trilogies can feel a little flat; they are after all neither the beginning or the end but, well, the middle. No such issues here though. Philip Reeve seems to have challenged himself with a hugely demanding 'Top that!' - and then done it. He takes both his fantastic, sci-fi, train -dominated world, and his cast of wired and wonderful characters and develops  them further, in an almost mind-blowingly rich and imaginative way. Hovering on the very verge of fantasy, his high-tech multiverse becomes the setting for action which twists and turns amazingly, sometimes quite shockingly and even disturbingly. He stretches excitement on an ever tightening rack. His conjuring of  worlds and creatures seems to know no bounds, and yet his characters and their story grip and wring the reader's emotions. He paints for us the blackest of villains and yet his 'heros' are complex and ambivalent, wonderfully human - even those that aren't. And beneath it all lies still the most original and touching love story. This book has everything , and more. For any avid reader from late childhood onwards it offers rewards on so many levels.

A subsidiary, but nonetheless  delightful, feature  is that it is peppered with humour, often slyly wicked, sometimes just plain silly and occasionally reminiscent of The Hitchhiker's Guide, in the best possible way. I rolled about at the hotel lift which, when ridden in the midst  of a roaring inferno, advised its passengers to use the stairs next time there was a fire. Such moments provide a wonderful foil to the many genuinely tense situations, whilst other quips add warmth and depth to its already endearing protagonists. The glossary is a particular highlight of mischievous humour and should not be missed. 

The close of this second book is bitter sweet, reminiscent almost of The Amber Spyglass, but here the big difference is that this is not the end. Philip Reeve showed in Mortal Engines, how skilfully he can move stories on  and I am sure he will do so here. 'Wire dolly', Nova, with her touching love for Zen, given and reciprocated despite her being an android, is one of his finest, most thought-provoking and magical creations. I for one am desperate for whatever he imagines next. 

We readers will, I know, thrill to the songs of his trains far into our future.

Railhead was one of my books of the year, last year. His follow-up cannot fail to top the pile for this year too.