'"According to the Ruby Warlock, one should never linger in Necropolis after dark."
"Did he say why?"
"No, because he didn't linger to find out."' (p 255)
Astonishingly, this Spring has already brought us two stunning new additions to children's fantasy literature, Adam Kurcher's Twelve Nights and Dave Rudden's The Endless King, the final part of his Knights of the Borrowed Dark trilogy. Both are recently reviewed here.
Now, here is another children's fantasy that, in its different way, can also be recommended enthusiastically What we have in Burning Magic, the third of Joshua Khan's Shadow Magic novels, is 24 Karat gold children's entertainment. Together with is predecessors (see post from August '17), it is a real crowd pleaser in the very best sense, and should be warmly welcomed by anyone wanting to encourage and support the reading enjoyment of young fantasy fans. It has all ingredients that so many children love, and it has them in spades. For a start there is magic aplenty, and in a mesmerising variety of forms. There is the dark necromancy of the 'Shadow' land, Gehenna, complete with ghosts, ghouls and even zombies (whose mouldering body parts have a frustrating habit of falling off at inconvenient times). There is the magic of the exotic Sultanate of Fire, all flames, larva and efreets. And there is the wild, ancient magic of the Shardlands. There is copious action and excitement, too, wrapped up with mystery, murder and suspense - all culminating in a dangerous challenge-quest with competition from dastardly villains. There are monstrous beasts to fight, a giant vampire bat for an ally (if not quite a pet!) and even an obstreperous camel to cope with - although Gobber, as it is called, turns out to be more of a hero than might have been expected.
To add to the book's attractiveness there is also plenty of humour, ranging from witty repartee to the debunking of buffoons, and including both farcical antics and running gags. It can by turns be laugh-out-loud funny and delightfully clever. Amongst the most entertaining of its recurring titillations are hero Thorn's frequent and often tiresome attempts to quote the 'wisdom' of his revered peasant grandfather - although, when he does get a chance to utter them, these pithy sayings often contain more folk wisdom than other characters give credit for.
'Grandpa says the cow don't care why its being milked, just as long as the farmer has warm hands.' (p 120)
Whilst Joshua Khan's world building draws on many recognisable conventions to root it fairly in the 'high fantasy' genre, it is more than original and imaginative enough to keep the whole fresh and engaging. His geopolitical landscape, with several different 'kingdoms' each representing the contrasting qualities of one of six super-magician ancestors is sufficiently rich to be convincingly epic, without being so complex as to confuse young readers. His core idea of making his principal protagonist, Lily, not a 'goody-goody' princess, but a prominent member of the elite Shadow family, a necromancer, from the kingdom of dark magic, is an inspired one. It has given these books a hugely engaging and entertaining twist right from the start. By this third book Lily is well establish as the 'witch queen' of her kingdom, although still very much a young girl too. However the author cleverly now moves the setting from Lily's own shadow land to the exotic 'Sultanate of Fire', with its different style of 'fire magic'. This allows him to continue to develop his established characters within a new freshness of context. Its 'Arabian Nights' atmosphere contrasts beautifully with the gothic one of former books. The change of scene is further exploited in whole sections set in the desert landscape of the 'Shardlands', where the story's principal quest takes places. These lands house the ruined palaces of earlier and even more magical forebears and allow the exploration of much powerful and riveting back story to further enrich the ongoing tale.
'The limits of reality, fragile in the Shardlands already, could be more easily broken the deeper they went.' (p 230)
Lily's character has always been cleverly contrasted with those of the books' other two main characters, the non-magical but courageous peasant boy, Thorn, and the scholarly fire prince, K'leef. Similarly these two themselves make an interesting pairing with each other.
K'leef: My mother used to tell me stories about the golden age of magic.
Thorn: My mom used to tell me to clean up after the goats. (p 128)
In Burning Magic their relationships are skilfully developed further. Indeed there are the very first stirrings of love interest and rivalry nestling within their close friendships. However, these are always within the bounds of what is fitting for their own tender age - and, indeed, that of the readers. That all three of these friends are, at heart admirable, likeable and easy to identify with is another feature that makes the book so involving. Perhaps surprisingly, this applies even to the young witch queen, despite (or maybe even because of) her talents for sewing back the the rotting body parts that have fallen off her zombies.
Although their adversaries are every bit as corrupt and nastily chilling as you would expect fantasy villains to be, even some of them are not without real interest and roundness as characters. They too are subject to influence and (sometimes surprising) change as the narrative develops.
It is all tremendously exciting, involving fantasy fun of the highest order. And yet the popular appeal of Burning Magic should not be taken to imply that this is a superficial read. It has real class, and a fair amount of depth too.
Joshua Khan's use of language is outstanding, both elegant and powerful. It can be evocatively descriptive or excitingly dynamic at need. It provides an excellent model for young writers, and shows wonderfully that English prose does not need to be simplistic to be accessible to a young audience.This feature alone would ensure the book stood head and shoulders above many more run-of-the-mill children's fantasies.
Even beyond this, though, Burning Magic embraces a number of important themes which will get young readers thinking as well as keeping them entertained. Yet it does so without being in the least didactic. Like many of the best children's books, it valuably explores the real meaning of friendship, emphasising the importance of valuing the contributions of others rather than dwelling on apparent differences. However it also interestingly plumbs issues of kinship and loyalty, betrayal and trust. It implicitly poses many challenging questions, too, about the exercise of power and its huge potential to corrupt.
'The throne sat empty except for its bitter promise of power.' (p 276)
More than anything, it majors on the potential of girls and women and on the pernicious effect of denying them the opportunities granted to boys and men. Lily quite wonderfully represents girls' right to be 'magic', in all its manifestations.
'By the Six, she hated those stories! The ones with a simpering princess, an evil witch - usually one of her relatives -and a heroin prince or a handsome peasant who thought, just by killing the monster, he basically got to own the idiot princess. . . She made a much more interesting heroine. The Witch queen who lived with the undead, conversed with her father's ghost, and kept her brother in an eternal sleep in a tall tower covered with cobwebs.' (p 253-4)
Too true. And all those who sympathise (girls and boys) will love this book.
It is a great pity that Joshua Khan's sparkling fantasies do not, as yet, seem to be better known here in the UK. They should be piled high in our bookshops (preferably independent ones) where they deserve to figure prominently amongst bestsellers. I am sure countless children will just love them. Meanwhile it has to be said that the three US hardbacks from Disney Hyperion now make a very handsome set indeed, beautifully produced, sumptuous volumes greatly enhanced by Ben Hibon's strikingly dramatic illustrations. Book lovers should seek them out and treasure them, both as stories and as artefacts.