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, 29 August 2017

Shadow Magic / Dream Magic by Joshua Khan

Entertaining finds

Here are two great finds for children's fantasy. They are wonderful books. And these ones really are for children (US 'Middle Grade'); so many 'high' fantasies stray into Young Adult territory. UK readers may need to seek them out though. Despite their London-based author, they don't seem to be too widely known here yet. They are, however, very  successfully published in splendid editions in the US. 

I am generally very sceptical indeed of book blurb which offers a successor to Harry Potter. But although these magic fantasies are quite different from J K Rowling's stories, I do agree that they will have something of the same appeal to much the same audience. They are hugely entertaining, completely enthralling, exciting and  endearing in equal measure. ,

Fantasy with a twist

They have many of the classic ingredients of high fantasy, small warring kingdoms of a broadly 'medieval' nature, scorcerers and warriors, lords, princes and princesses, fantastic beasts (occasionally doubling as magical pets), a displaced waif adopted as an 'apprentice', evil plots and even more dastardly villains. The main twist this author brings is that Lily, one of the very likeable young protagonists, is heiress to a kingdom of dark sorcery, rather than the usual champion of 'the light'. This gives plenty of scope for a world of wicked magic, zombies, bats, crumbling, haunted castles and the like,  although, as appropriate for the young audience, it all has rather more in common with Disney or the Adams Family than with Denis Wheatlley and the occult. It is the source of as much humour as horror. However, even though she is now ruler of Gehenna, following the recent murder of her parents, Lily is forbidden from learning sorcery because of being female. However, feisty young thing that she is, you can't see her abiding with that rule for too long. 

Lily is complemented by a young male character, Thorn, rescued from slavery by the kingdom's 'Executioner', Tybirn, and brought to her court, for motives only much later to become apparent. Thorn is a down-to-earth, likeable lad, and their unexpected developing friendship is one of the book's many joys. A trio of young protagonists is completed by K'leef, a poor little rich boy (with a magic of his own) who is currently being held hostage from a neighbouring kingdom. Together they make as utterly charming a cast of 'heroes' as I have found in this type of story for a long time. Then there is the 'pompous, arrogant, bullying and entirely moronic' prince from the neighbouring kingdom, who Lily is supposed to marry to cement a peace treaty Well, feisty young thing that she is . . .  Enough said I think. 

And a mystery too

Around these young people and their engaging world, Joshua Khan weaves a zestful, rumbustious tale that constantly trills, delights, and terrifies. As Lily herself in some senses represents 'the dark' , this cannot be the usual high fantasy plot to overthrow the powers of darkness, instead this first book is more of a murder mystery. It is something of a who-done-it in terms of the killing of  Lily's parents, an attempt to poison Lilly herself, and other equally dastardly deeds. As an adult reader, I actually cottoned on quite quickly to where the plot was leading. But I don't think many younger readers will. To them, the final revelation will come as a surprising and indeed a shocking one. 

Together with the theme of Lily asserting herself  as a girl (quite right too) and Thorn and K'leef finding something of their role in life, this is just about as rich and rewarding a read as most children could wish for. Oh, and did I say entertaining, exciting, enthralling and endearing? I surely should have.

Strong sequel 

Second books in a series can sometimes feel a bit of a disappointment, a rather pale repeat of the first. However, here, Joshua Khan cleverly exploits the potential without falling into any of the bear traps. His young protagonists are already beginning to feel like old friends, but he continues to develop their characters and relationships well. Similarly, he succeeds in developing his world, giving readers more of what they enjoyed so much the first time around but without the storyline feeling in any serious way repetitive or predictable. In fact I found even  more humour in this book and the darkness has become even darker, more ghoulish, although, still never seriously disturbing. 

In this episode, Lily, our young ruler of the Dark Kingdom continues to develop her (forbidden) powers as a sorcerer. As a consequence she has 'let through' countless undesirables, zombies and worse. Worse than zombies? On yes. Believe me. Far worse. She still needs her friendship with loyal commoner, Thorn, very badly. 

This story too is bursting with shocking incident and exciting action. It is an unrelenting and involving page-turner, a delightfully entertaining read throughout and exactly the sort of book that will engage and delight countless young readers, as well as hooking in many potentially more reluctant others. If it is not quite Harry Potter (what  could be?),  then it is probably as good a substitute as those with no Hogwarts left are likely to find. 

Seek them out

Which makes it altogether mystifying why these hugely entertaining young reads, by a London-based writer, are very successfully published in the US but don't as yet seem to be so widely known over here. 

It sometimes feels to me that there might be a degree of prejudice around against full-blown fantasy and in favour of books that deal with 'real life', with 'issues'.

If so it is seriously misplaced. Of course 'real life' books have a vital place in the children's canon. However, fantasy is an exploration of imagination, and that is just as much a part of our human make up as our ability to cope with the everyday. Fantasy nurtures and expands the imagination and imagination is the core of all the Arts, as well as of many other fields of endeavour. Indeed it is the essence of all creativity. And much fantasy does in fact deal with profound human issues too;it is just that it does it through metaphor, through distanced narrative, rather than facing them head on. It still leads to learning through vicarious experience. It is just that that experience is dressed in images. 

All story is powerful. All story is fundamental   We should beware of valuing some of its manifestation more than others. It can lead to an imposition of our own ideas of what is correct, what is best, over the breadth and depth of provision which allows children to discover for themselves what it is that they want and need. 

And do we require anything more than young Potter to demonstrate both the potency and popularity of fantasy for huge numbers of young readers, here in the UK as well as in The States?

The good news is that #3 in Joshua Khan's trilogy, Burning Magic, is due out next Spring, over there at least. Oh, and by he way, the splendidly handsome US hardbacks are considerable enhanced by Ben Hobson's striking illustrations. 

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Thornhill by Pam Smy

For Brian Selznick fans

Over the course of his three recent children's books, The Invention of Hugo Carbet (2007), Wonderstruck (2011) and The Marvells (2015), brilliant American artist/author Brian Selznick has essentially developed a new form of graphic novel for this audience.  Although his are indeed graphic novels in a very real sense, they bear little resemblance to the comic book styled publications that usually define this genre, of which there are many fine examples. Nor are they exactly like the wonderful textless narratives from masters such as David Wiesner and Shaun Tan. Indeed, there is no sense at all in which these are 'picture books' in the accepted understanding of that term, partly because they are in every way full-length, rich and complex novels, and also because the pictures are not merely illustrative of the text, but an alternative narrative device in their own right.  Instead, in Brian Selznick's books, substantial  sequences of textless, double-spread images carry whole sections of the narrative. However, these are then interspersed with other purely prose passages which either continue the pictures'  narrative, or provide a different but complementary one.  Brian Selznick's stories are wonderful and the way they are told is quite breathtaking. The finest of the very fine trio is, in my view, the latest and most complex,  The Marvels. (See my post of September '15.) However, they are all wonderful and together one of the most significant, imaginative and enchanting of recent contributions to the canon of children's literature.  If you don't know them,  you should read them yourselves and then certainly introduce them to as many children as possible. They will learn a whole new way of reading and appreciating fiction. 

Now a UK author/artist, has taken up the considerable challenge of this particular narrative format and produced an equally stunning contribution of her own.  Pam Smy has adopted a similar image/text approach to the Brian Selznick books, but her content is very different and both her graphic and writing styles are distinctively her own. She is also immensely skilled in both areas. 

Wonderful prose, stunning pictures 

Even if her book comprised the extant prose alone, it would be a remarkable achievement. This narrative elucidates the thoughts and feelings of a 'disturbed' girl in a 1980s orphanage, the titular Thornhill, already an old and run-down institution. The deceptively simple but very effective writing captures her voice perfectly and the diary account  of her situation and treatment gradually reveals her true and complex personality quite magically - and disturbingly. 

However the interwoven, complementary story told through the images is equally strong. This recounts how a second girl, this time living in 2017, and not without issues of her own, discovers the story of the first. The pictures convey her narrative with perfect clarity, but are as much about atmosphere and emotion as they are about incident. The striking, greyscale images, strong, simple, yet often subtle too, capture both of these most tellingly and this narrative format cleverly lures the reader into a different, but equally potent, quality of imaginative involvement. 

But of course it is ultimately the interrelationship of the two narrative strands which makes Thornhill most original and effective . Less is often more here and the fact that much is revealed, in both words and pictures,  by implication rather than direct exposition, renders it even more potent. This radically different way of  reading fiction is utterly compulsive, richly involving and deeply affecting. It is a truly life-enhancing book. 

More than a ghost story 

I do not think it is much of a spoiler to say that Thornhill is a ghost story; this is strongly telegraphed by the style of its images, not to say by direct pictorial reference, at one point, to Susan Hill. As such, it becomes spine-tinglingly chilling as the narrative develops   However, at heart, this is not so much a story about ghosts as one about very real children. In fact it carries a profoundly important message about humans and humanity , which, I am sure, will reach countless readers through its compelling storytelling. It is a compassionate book about compassion; about the importance of accepting others for who they truly are, not what they appear to be. With obviously heartfelt passion, it speaks of the importance of sharing our love with those who seem to make it hard for us to do so; with those who may appear not to want our love, to need it or perhaps, even, (from our position of 'superiority') to deserve it. 

Somewhere in Cambridge lives a remarkable little household of artist/authors.  Pam Smy's husband is Dave Shelton, creator of the delightful  A Boy and a Bear in a Boat, one of my all-time favourite books in the entire universe of children's literature. Now Pam Smy's own, very different, but equally exciting, book has come along to join the greats. 

What, no dust jacket?

I have only one regret about the physical presentation of Thornhill. My issue, I suspect, lies not at all with the author but with the  publisher. Its interestingly impressed boards notwithstanding, it is a crying shame that such an important and special contribution to children's literature has been issued without a dust jacket. Its lack sadly takes the edge off what is otherwise a beautifully produced volume, worthy of its content. 

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Door Before by N. D. Wilson

The sequel prequel 

Authors give themselves a problem when they decide to return to add more to a fantasy sequence they have previously considered finished. It happens quite often - and I don't think it is always just a desire to capitalise on earlier success. I suspect writers sometimes miss their characters and worlds just as much as their more avid readers do. But when a story has already been conclusively rounded off; when the world has already been saved from ultimate evil; when, as it were, the One Ring has finally been cast into the Crack of Doom, what can happen next that isn't anticlimactic? 

Of course some writers adopt the 'Return of Sherlock Holmes' approach, claim that the 'Reichenbach Falls' didn't happen the way you thought, and just carry on, regardless of how contrived it feels. Fortunately few reputable authors are so blatant. A much more common and acceptable solution is to keep the same  world but move characters on a generation, so that new young protagonists can face fresh challenges. However the solution that a remarkable number have come up with is to make their sequel in fact a prequel; to fill in missing back story, rather than continue beyond what is already a pretty conclusive end. This is the approach which N. D. Wilson has adopted in his recent addition to the 100 Cupboards sequencewhich he wrote between 2007 and 2010. 

Up with the best 

The Cupboards trilogy (100 Cupboards, Dandelion Fire, The Chestnut King) is a 'classic' of children's fantasy, if one can use the term for something written as recently as 7-10 years ago. Let's, perhaps, settle instead for the charming oxymoron 'contemporary classic'. 

With so much larger a market, combined with a particular transatlantic appetite for the genre, the US publishes far more children's fantasy than does the UK. It can, therefore, sometimes be difficult to sieve out the nuggets. However the best of American writing for children is amongst the finest writing for children in English. Period. And this fantasy trilogy is certainly well up there. 

Portals aplenty

These books of N. D. Wilson's offer a highly original take on the well-established idea of the 'portal fantasy', the 'wardrobe' door that leads to another world. This is primarily because his numerous cupboards offer so many such portals, with a multiverse of fantasy worlds behind them. Even though all 99 potential worlds* are not actually exploited, the many that are, and the interconnections between them, give the story real interest. Even greater perhaps is the interest in the relationships of protagonist, Henry, and his 'family' to the worlds beyond the cupboards. 

The books have many strengths. Not least is a delightfully dry humour which permeates, especially in the 'real world' sections of the story. Added to this is the author's wonderful skill with language, where words and phrases are often used quite magically to conjure images of people and places and to evoke effecting thoughts and reactions. This language is never 'fancy' but rather communicates directly and powerfully with the reader.  It is truly masterful. Another strength lies in the way N. D. Wilson eschews heavy up-front exposition, but rather lets the story unfold in the telling. He allows the reader to piece together what is happening, often echoing protagonist, Henry's own gradual realisation of the import and implication of his situation. In fact the human story is often as interesting and engaging as the high excitement and action of the fantasy world encounters, and that too is an important part of the tale's fascinating hold. Not, of course, that there aren't chills and thrills galore in the unfolding fantasy itself, which grows from small beginnings to earth-shattering climax. 

Seek them out

The Washington Post is quoted as saying this is a 'must-read series'. I do not always agree with book cover hype, but on this occasion I emphatically do. Fans, for example, of the early Narnia stories, will love these cupboarded worlds,  It is also a series which many parents and teachers will, I'm sure, feel comfortable to share or recommend. Despite its witches and nightmares, it is a sequence that is, at heart, homely and wholesome. Further, it achieves this without being preachy in the way that, say, the later Narnia books are. It is hard to understand why 100 Cupboards has never been published in the UK. True, the narrative is grounded in very specific US culture and customs, but, after so much exposure to American movies and TV, most young readers will relate to this readily enough. Even where they don't, there is both stimulus and enjoyment in teasing out occasional,culturally unfamiliar references. It is an important part of learning to live in a global society. 

Seek these books out. It is not too hard. Whilst I am a strong advocate of patronising local (preferably independent) bookshops whenever possible, we should be grateful to the Internet for giving us easier access to such titles. 

And what happened before?

In the light of all this it was with both excitement and nervousness that I opened The Door Before. Would it complement and extend, or just detract from the fine and essentially complete trilogy that already exists?

Reading it rapidly blew any concerns right out of the water. In the interim, N. D. Wilson has grown himself from a notable writer into one of very considerable distinction. Indeed , I would not hesitate in  saying, one of real greatness. If 100 Cupboards is a classic children's fantasy, then The Door Before is children's literature of the finest calibre. 

As a book it is strange, disturbing,  enigmatic. Its masterly language is crafted and controlled, but buzzing with originality; it's often poetic, but never flowery. N. D. Wilson has never been an over-emphatic writer, his storylines never crudely explicit. But now he has honed his skill with even greater subtlety. His narrative emerges and grows organically in the readers' understanding. And it is a thrilling, deeply involving process. Small details coalesce into major themes. Heightened senses create and define experiences. Characters are discovered rather than described. It is like Alan Garner (somewhere, perhaps, between Elidor and The Owl Service,)but with, of course, a distinct American accentIt is simply quite magical to read. 

As with 100 Cupboards, this is a skilful blend of 'reality' and fantasy, but here seepage of the one into the  other rapidly becomes a leak and soon a torrent. Because principal protagonist Hyacinth has special abilities, she, in fact, belongs to both elements and inextricably links them. Their intertwining is soon complex and enthralling. The one dreams the other, precipitating nightmare in every sense. Images are rich and potent at the same time as action is fast and furious. 

The human and the inhuman

Here are both wounders and healers. The book's human characters are rich and subtle. Its protagonists are endearing, and also complex. They are, well, human. Hyacinth is not Supergirl, zooming off to do right. She is a little girl, brave and caring, but often lost and confused too. 

In contrast the story's stereotypes of evil are boldly archetypal. Eyeless and seeing only through those of her scabby cat,  its Witch-Queen of Endor is everything of The White Witch, The Snow Queen, or The Wicked Witch of the West, but with a real presence of putrid evil  She is malice personified. The passage where she draws on her (stolen) power to create the tree doors is one of the most gruesomely compelling I have read for a long time. Her dependence upon the life force she sucks out of others provides the most potent of images. The fungus 'gollums' are the epitome of manipulated menace, and her other minions, wolves, wizards, blade-slaves and ravens add terror to the marauding host. This is fantasy at is classic best, reinvented through the pen and imagination of a very fine writer. Like Tolkien, he presents an image of ultimate evil without actually defining it, so that it can represent whatever a reader sees it as. Like Pullman, he sometimes draws on Biblical symbolism, but as an image rather than a precept. Powerfully,  Hyacinth becomes Moses cast adrift on the Nile in a rush basket, abandoned, only so that she can later return as saviour of her people. Other potent archetypes are drawn in too, not least the morally ambiguous Green Man, a power of nature that is both regeneration and destruction.  

Then there are the trees. Cupboards and doors are made of wood. Wood is from trees, trees with their ability to 'wrap,the years around them in ringed layers.' They 'stretch branches into cousin futures, plunging roots into sister pasts, binding every leaf into one story, the only story. the story that began. the story that cannot end, because it can never stop growing.' Trees are the very heart of the mystery here. 

A door, a metaphor 

100 Cupboards treats with the ultimate defeat of evil. The Door Before is about its unleashing on the world, about the opening of doors that are best not opened. But it is perhaps not a first ever unleashing, and we know that the binding at this books conclusion is not the last. This is a cataclysm and a resolution that repeats through time, over and over. And there is always a price to be paid. By Hyacinth or by the world of 'The Order'? 

Do not read this prequel first. It is a true sequel. Like those few works of fiction which successfully tell their story backwards (Sarah Waters' devastating The Night Watch comes to mind, although it is categorically not a children's book), its greatest power lies not in finding out what happens, but in already knowing what will follow. Here it holds a consolation, but also a warning. What is ultimate? The end of each tree ring does not define the girth of a growing trunk. This one can never stop growing. So the story cannot end.

In fantasy in reality; in fiction, in life; all worlds are one world. 

And anyway, it is always good to save the best until last. 

That said, with a writer this fine, his other books must be of great interest too. So I have every intention of adding his trilogy The Ashtown Burials to my reading pile as soon as I can. And come on UK publishers. Our children deserve more ready access to as fine, important (and hugely enjoyable) works of children's literature as these. 

Note: *Not 100? No. Read the books. 

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Dragon Rider: The Griffin's Feather by Cornelia Funke

Great works with a wonderful German accent

Cornelia Funke is undoubtedly one of the greats of contemporary children's fiction and it is splendid to have another writer from continental Europe* amidst this eminent company. She brings something of the whimsical quirkiness and fairy tale darkness of a different tradition into the wonderful mix. There are at least faint echoes, I find, of the likes of Michael Ende and even Erich K√§stner in her writing, and certainly more than a little of the Brothers Grimm.  Even in translation, there is sometimes, too, a slightly different rhythm and cadence to her rich language that is thrillingly and refreshingly engaging. 

Of course her wonderful Inkheart trilogy now deservedly stands as one of the seminal works of children's fantasy. Her later MirrorWorld (Reckless) sequence, darkly imaginative and disturbingly enthralling, is also quite remarkable, although for a much older readership. The fact that it is centred in the most overtly 'fairy' of all her worlds does not make it for little children, quite the reverse. These fairies are sensual, sexual and spiteful; for maturing teens only. In contrast, an early work, The Thief Lord, remains one of my favourites; it epitomises what I think of as her enchanting European oddness and is set in beloved, breathtaking Venice. It is certainly worth seeking out for any keen and adventurous child reader. 

And now a Dragonrider sequel

Dragonrider, for younger readers still, was actually written before any of these, and was her first full length novel, although the current English translation was only published in 2004. It is a charming flight of fantasy in many senses. So now it is excellent to have an even stronger sequel, The Griffin's Feather - and one with an important environmental theme too. These are not, I think, her very finest works, but they are delightful in themselves and just the thing for younger fans of fantasy adventure and loveable 'fantastic beasts'. This latest would make a great read-aloud for KS2 too. 

The author's own illustrations are an enchanting added bonus. 

*Note: Although Cornelia Funke now lives in the USA, she still writes in German