Here is the best piece of YA historical fiction that I have come across in a long while.
There are a good number of fine children's novels set on the UK 'home front' during WWII, most involving evacuation, but this piece of teen fiction, capturing brilliantly the experience of a young person actually living through the Blitz in London is a very exciting new find.
WWII in The Tower
A inspired element of this writer's approach is setting most of the novel's action in and around the Tower of London. Anna, initially a13 year-old, is moved to live within its ancient walls, with her uncle, one of the Yeoman Warders, after both her parents have been (apparently) killed. Coinciding with the end of the 'phoney war' and the beginning of Hitler's Blitzkrieg, her disrupted life also becomes wrapped up with looking after The Tower ravens. The central role of 'Ravenmaster' is initially her uncle's, but gradually passes to her. The presence of The Tower itself, its gloomy stones a repository of England's history, albeit a dark as well as an enduring one, makes a powerful symbol as well as a setting. Even though it does not protect Anna from the horrors and heartaches of the war, it becomes an emotional home, just as the ravens, in legend symbols of the nation's security, become her obsession as well as her responsibility. It is a truly inspired combination of location and events on the part of John Owen Theobald, and a deeply enthralling one for the reader.
'Before us stands yesterday.' (Ted Hughes, quoted on page 304 of Book 3)
Presenting the past
It has become very trendy recently for authors to choose to narrate their fiction in the first person present tense. I have to say that, in general, this particular fad is much to be regretted. More often than not it comes across as a writerly affectation that alienates (at least this particular reader) far more than it involves in the moment of action. I have encountered any number of books recently that had perfectly good storylines but were sadly marred by this often limited and limiting viewpoint. It too often amounts to an abnegation of control over the perspectives that Philip Pullman likens to a director's choices of camera position in movies*.
However, there are just a few instances where, in the hands of a skilled writer, using it for very specific purpose rather than simply voguish narration, this device works brilliantly. One such instance is in Sally Green's Half Bad books; another is here. And, although these books are very different, I think the reason for the success is much the same in both these cases. Here, as with Nathan Byrn, it is not simply a question of Anna narrating a story in the present, it is that what is going on in her head is the story. These Dark Wings is not simply about the war, or The Tower, it is about Anna's experience of these things. Using the style and approach he does, John Owen Theobald perfectly captures those experiences and allows the reader to share them intimately. What are presented are almost like recollections so vividly conjured that they are relived, moment by moment. So Anna's narration is often somewhat fragmented, even confused, especially when she is at her youngest and her life at its most insecure. It is subjective. We do not know everything that happens, what we know is what happens to Anna, what matters to Anna, what effects Anna. But that we know, see and feel, in vivid detail. It is quite wonderfully done and gives the novel a spellbinding perspective of considerable depth. Through air raids and rationing, through sleeping in The Bloody Tower and through relationships with The Tower's other inhabitants, we experience growing up along with Anna. And all this is spiced with disturbing secrets about her parents, potential spies, strange friends, and, of course, the ravens. The writer's camera positioning may be limited, but the detailed reactions thus caught are revalatory
The second book of the series does not have quite the same intensity of focus as the first - but there are compensations. A second voice is introduced, that of Anna's 'friend' from The Tower, Timothy Squire. His internal dialogue is now interleaved with Anna's own to broaden the story's viewpoint, as well as its action. Much of the latter also moves beyond The Tower itself, although it remains anchored by it. The two protagonists move into a phase of 'doing their bit' in the conflict (each still at a ridiculously young age) and the scenarios they experience become grippingly thrilling as well as devastatingly terrifying. We still see it all through the direct experience of these two, and this writer's device continues to work with stunning effectiveness, bringing searing vividness to quite horrendous, heartbreaking, scenes.
Whilst Timothy Squire (almost) trains as a sapper, Anna moves towards flying planes for the 'ATA'. Whether the author knows about WWII planes as intimately as he does The Tower of London, or whether his research of both is simply meticulous, his descriptions of flying and learning to fly rival those of the classics of Antoine De Saint-Exupery; they are viscerally exciting, quite breathtaking This book is in part a teenage romance, spiked with all the bear traps of inexperience. But it is far more too. It sensitively explores the first hand experience of living through war in ways that far outstrip many other books on the same topic. Here, too, the effect that the war had on the roles and self image of both young women and young men is broached in an intensely pertinent and affecting way. It is a work of great humanity.
As the young lives of Anna Cooper and Timothy Squire move increasingly away from The Tower to become involved in combat, so the narrative becomes more of a conventional war story. However if this third book lacks the intriguing and inspired location of the first, then it is by far the most viscerally exciting and devastatingly compelling of the three. And still the writing is superb, with the strongly subjective viewpoints taking the reader into every moment of experience, vicariously to share thoughts and feelings with blistering intensity. It is by turns heart-stopping and heart-rending.
It also subtly asks many questions and provokes much thought, about both war and the eventual nature of the peace that was sought at such cost. For young readers, now much further from the World Wars than their grandparents, or even parents, there is much that will be educational, in the best sense, because it is honest too. For there is not only much stoicism, bravery and daring do in Ravenmaster but also all the terror and grief, the deprivation, the unspeakable cruelty, and the narrow minded stupidity, that was to be found on both sides. There is no simplistic morality here, but a constant dilemma, with the conflict as much between what had to be done and what should not have been done, as between the Allies and the Nazis. It also, rightly, pays due heed to the fact that it was not the white British alone who fought Hitler.
Again, in this third book, the author increases the positioning of his narrative camera, introducing new viewpoints and allowing more character perspectives. Yet the essential focus remains on the stories of Anna and Timothy, and we feel for them and with them through the final dreadful stages of the conflict. The tale speaks continually of both their separation and of their commitment to each other - as well as to The Tower and its resident birds.
For it is now that presence of the ravens, in actuality and image, comes most into its own. As Anna herself becomes a flier, a pilot, involved in transport and ultimately in conflict, the heart of this narrative truly beats. The ability of girls and women to fulfill their potential in the context of the war is profoundly and sensitively explored, not only through Anna herself, but through her flying comrades, her immediate commander and through the role of an SOE officer in occupied France.
As a preface to one of the final sections of this book, the author quotes Nancy Astor, from 1940, and it is very pertinent. 'Women of ability are held down because of a subconscious Hitlerism in the hearts of men.'
Yet Anna and the others openly and robustly challenge such attitudes.
'For too long we've been caged, our wings clipped. Now we're really part of it. Now we're going to help end it.' (Page 88)
But will they continue to fly once the war is over? Many think they should not.
The Ravenmaster Trilogy is very much a piece for all those who, quite rightly, want to be 'rebel girls'*. However, it just as much for the boys who need to encourage them, or perhaps just keep out of their way. For our societies to work as they should, boys need to understand, and act to resolve, the issues just as much as girls. Equally boys need to be freed from socially imposed stereotypes just as girls do.
Those who have read this blog before will know that my principal penchant is for fantasy, and I tend to like even my history with a touch of fantasy too. But I found this 'realistic' imagining of growing up through WWII totally compelling. It messages are even more so.
At the end of this tale, the wing-clipped ravens of The Tower may soon fly more freely. Others of their kind already swoop the skies. The kingdom of prejudice is falling. It has not completely fallen even yet. But it will. It must. And Anna Cooper will have done her bit. In the first book she began by allowing the feathers of two ravens, Mabel and Grip, to grow so that they can to fly free. Now she has started the Raven Flying School, its motto:
'Flying is the future. Man or woman, black or white, young or old. Learn to fly. '
*As in one of this year's most important and finest non-fiction books Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo.