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.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

The Legend of Sally Jones by Jakob Wegelius

Those many who, like me, are already captivated by Jakob Wegelius's uber-charming gorilla, Sally Jones, will not be able to resist this ravishing supplement to her life. Any who have not yet read The Murderer's Ape* could well be tempted by this beguiling introduction to discover the novel itself. I do hope so, because it is one of the most enjoyable, and original, highlights of recent children's fiction. 

This prequel to the novel itself has a somewhat different format, somewhere, perhaps, between a graphic novel and an older children's picture book. As such it does not provide the wondrously engrossing extended read of its 'big sister'. However it does fill in the back story of Sally Jones' life fascinatingly, including an explanation of how she got her somewhat surprising and incongruous name. Hers is, in fact, an early existence strewn with misfortune, as she is misled, betrayed, exploited and abused time after tragic time. Yet her story is ultimately a heart-warming, rather than as a heart-rending, one . Sally Jones is emotionally vulnerable in ways that will resonate with many of her readers, but she is also intelligent and resourceful; above all she is a survivor, and we ultimately rejoice in the real and lasting friendship which supports her through everything. 

What The Legend of Sally Jones lacks in the narrative detail of The Murderer's Ape, it fully makes up for in one glorious respect, its copious illustration. Whilst the longer novel beguiled us with scattered examples of Jakob Wegelius' arresting and idiosyncratic art work, this book glows with it on every single page, in ravishing pastel colour. His pictures can be amusing, intriguing, touching or beautiful. They are often all of these at the same time, altogether a delight. The different page layouts are most attractive too. If the other book is a testament to the glories of the author's enthralling storytelling , as it indeed is, then this one is a peon to the wonders of his imaginative image-making.  

Neither are to be missed at any price. Sally Jones is an ape well worth getting to know, verbally and visually. She will enrich the lives of countless children (and I suspect adults too) for many years to come.  

*See my review from Sept '17. 

Friday, 26 October 2018

Dragon Daughter by Liz Flanagan

'Milla saw a smooth, glistening expanse nestling in a deep velvet surround. There was a rounded dome inside, a light turquoise blue, dotted with dark gold speckles like the first drops of rain on stone. Gently, she wiggled her fingers down the sides and lifted it out.' (p 52)

Inside the outside

Some books you can wrap yourself in, like a cozy duvet. But you only sleep when they're finished.

The cover of Dragon Daughter has attracted much admiration on social media, and deservedly so. Angelo Rinaldi's illustration is indeed stunning. However, it would be a tragedy if interest stopped there, because the novel it envelopes is one of the most engrossing children's fantasy reads of recent years. This is a case where we really do get 'what it says on the tin'. From the jacket, the penetratingly magical eyes of a superbly imagined blue dragon shower us with fiery sparks. On its back rides the small but defiant figure of a girl,  a vision of hope glowing from from her young face. The rose light of a new dawn catches the fringes of  her lifting hair. And everything this striking image promises, Liz Flanagan's story delivers - everything and more. 

Even though it was a long time ago, I have clear memories of trailing home from school through grey streets, in a depressing downpour, my belted gabardine raincoat and schoolboy cap soaking in more water than they repelled. I huddled swiftly along, not so much because of the weather but because of what was waiting for me,  a world of comfort to which I ached to return, the world of a book. In those day it was probably an Arthur Ransome or a Malcolm Saville, although a  very first reading of The Lord of the Rings was not far ahead. These were books I lived in, books that I simultaneously longed to finish and wanted never to end. I was desperate to get to the final pages, not simply to find out what happened, but to reach that place when everything turned out all right. At the same time I wanted the book to go on and on; I didn't want to leave its world and, perhaps most of all, I didn't want to leave the company of its characters, who felt like my very special friends. I wanted to be with them, to be like them, to be them. And, whilst I was reading, I was. 

Only very rarely since then have I found books that immersed me in quite that way. Dragon Daughter is one of them 

The dragon's egg

At the heart of this new book protagonist, Milla, is present at the hatching of a dragon and the two pair for life. 

Of course, stories about dragons abound in fantasy literature. A good number of these are dragons that, on hatching, form a unique bond with a particular human, who subsequently becomes their rider. Perhaps the most deservedly famous of authors to exploit this idea is adult sci-fi/fantasy writer Anne McCaffery. Her Harper Hall Trilogy (Dragonsong; Dragonsinger; Dragondrums), is the element within her vast Dragonriders of Pern sequence most clearly aimed towards a Young Adult audience. It particularly stands out as amongst my all time most enjoyable reads. There are many children's books too that feature dragons, hatching eggs and riders. Amongst others writers, Cornelia Funke, Angie Sage and Cressida Cowell have all, in different ways, woven wonderful magic from these particular story elements  

So, if is is not originality of concept, then what is it that makes Dragon Daughter such an outstanding  book?

New world, new friends

For starters,  Liz Flanagan builds a convincing 'high' fantasy world of compelling intrigue that almost immediately draws us in. In has a rich balance of familiarity and freshness that we enter willingly together with that mixture  of comfort and excited stimulation that constitutes a really good read. Added to this Milla and her small group of friends are not just interesting but completely credible as characters - and hugely likeable too. It is easy to identify with them.  What happens to them as the story develops swiftly engenders that very state of mind where we desperately want things to work out well, but fear that they won't - for a good while at least.

When we are reading this book, it does not matter one jot that stories about dragon riders have been written before because we are living through every engrossing moment of this one. Only this particular story is important. This place matters because it is the one we are in.  This situation matters because it is the one we are experiencing. These characters are the ones we care about, not in some abstract way, but right here, right now. This author's imagining of the events comes alive. Everything that happens matters to Milla, so it matters to us. 

I don't know exactly what it is in the writing that creates this effect, but it is the mark of a very talented children's author.


'In the days that followed, Milla would be glad of those wakeful hours she'd spent with her dragon. She held the memory of their closeness like a blanket around her against what happened next.' (p 294) By the later stages of the story we readers know exactly how she felt. We need all the warmth and feel good of the earlier chapters to survive the shocking trauma and heartache of the climactic later ones.

Dragon Daughter is an outstanding example of the power of story. Although the development of the narrative involves descent into revolution and bloody warfare, it remains very much the tale of Milla and her friends - and, of course, their dragons. Perhaps, indeed, this is where its true power lies. It has a human scale, whilst still dealing with huge events and themes. 

Deep wrongs

And there lies the essence of of it. The greatest thing of all about Liz Flanagan's writing, is that this book is not just a story. Into its plot she subtly but surely weaves some of today's most real and concerning themes. Embedded within her narrative is an exploration of racism, with examples of its most fundamental and heinous expression. Although seen through the veils of fantasy, its presence immediately resonates with our own world. A ' superior' society  that  treats with blatant unfairness and careless cruelty those it considers inferior feels all too familiar. Impoverished and neglected 'camps' of unwelcome immigrants only add to the picture. And, when individuals are forced, by draconian law, to wear symbols sewn on their clothing to externally badge their racial status, the horrendous parallels are obvious. 

Strident beneath all this is the despotism of  the ruling Duke. It is abundantly clear that his tyranny, and its pervasive abhorrent attitudes, stem directly from a male dominance and and unconcerned determination to maintain perceived masculine power and superiority at any cost.  Fortunately Milla, and a good few other strong female characters, are there to oppose him. It is highly pertinent, too, that they seek to replace those attitudes, not with an alternative tyranny, but with a new, inclusive and tolerant way of living in their world. It is quietly, but powerfully, a very feminist book. And three cheers for that. 

However, unlike some of the most strident feminist writers, Liz Flanagan does not demonise all males. Once imprinted by his dragon, the Duke's son, Vigo, becomes very much a 'new man', fighting alongside Milla for freedoms that should belong to all people equally. There also are other boys and men in the story, willing to stand up for what is right, and pay the cost, alongside the girls and women. And three cheers for that too.

Politics and fantasy

After writing Tehanu, the much later sequel to her renowned Earthsea trilogy, Ursula Le Guin was accused of  'politicising her delightful fantasy world'. In response she reminded us that, 'The world apart of a fantasy inevitably refers back to this world. All the moral weight of it is real weight. The politics of fairyland are ours.' * I can think of few better examples of this than Dragon Daughter. The fact that Liz Flanagan achieves it whilst still keeping everything fully accessible to a young audience, and entertainin them hugely to boot, is much to her credit. She does not lecture, but embodies her messages in her characters and their actions - and that is what great fiction does. 

'Milla's new knowledge of her own heritage still felt dangerous, incendiary as firepowder. She circled it warily. But one distant day, if they won this fight, she resolved to sit in the palace library and read every book, every sentence, every word that had ever been written (about that heritage).' (p 322). 

Thankfully there are now many books that can help girls, and indeed boys too, to envision the world as it can and should be. And this is one of them. 

Flying with a dragon

There is something very special in the idea of a dragon hatchling imprinting on a human child, of the two developing a lifelong, emotional, almost physical, bond. I think it is, perhaps, a perfect metaphor for the desire, the need, in all of us to bond with the world of fantasy, of imagination, of magic; to discover its power and its freedom; to fly our own dragon through life. Liz Flanagan capitalises upon our need for such a dragon  as convincingly and captivatingly as any children's writer I have encountered. 

But there is more to Dragon Daughter even than this. Its messages, both overt and subliminal, are profoundly important. 

'The dragon's must belong to everyone. The new eggs must hatch before everyone. We have to do things differently.' (p 322)

It is about revisioning the world. 

'Milla and the dragon stared at each other and the world was remade.' (p 122) So it is for readers of this wondrous book, for its duration at least - and, perhaps, through their power to imagine things being different, for ever. Now that's magic. 

* In a lecture of 1992, later published under the title Earthsea Revisioned. 

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher

'All the house was strange. Snow-glimmer lit ceilings and odd corners with a reflected whiteness. . . It was as if the house wanted her to flit silently through its secrets.'  (p 133)

An older magic

The fact that award-winning author Catherine Fisher was appointed as the inaugural Young Person's Laureate for Wales in 2014 is testament to her stature as a children's writer - if indeed any were needed beyond her considerable body of wonderful writing. 

I have been a huge fan of hers since she started writing, at the beginning of the 1990s. In those days she produced a number of outstanding fantasies for older children, much in the tradition of Alan Garner; terse, enigmatic works that drew potently on Celtic myth, particularly that of her native Wales. Three of theses first novels, The Conjuror's Game, Fintan's Tower and The Candle Man were subsequently republished together as The Glass Tower. She followed with another outstanding trilogy The Snow-Walker. All are still most definitely worth seeking out, both by adults interested in children's literature and by young readers themselves. 

Later, her powerful, imaginative writing developed more for a young adult audience. Of her many wonderful titles and sequences Incarceron stands out as one of the masterworks of the genre, although my own favourites remain those most strongly drawing on Celtic myth, to which she returns time and again, notably Darkhenge and Corbenic

Now she has produced what I think is her first major novel for younger children (7 upwards, I would say). And most welcome it is too, particularly as works of this fine quality are comparatively rare for the age-group. Beautifully crafted and sensitively written it is intriguing and exciting. It chills with its tale of snowy winter, both in landscape and atmosphere, whilst simultaneously warming with deep charm and inventive humour. 

Supreme storytelling 

Catherine Fisher's language is superficially accessible, as befits her audience, yet she proves herself brilliant at evoking place, character and atmosphere. Her word-painting shows all the honed skill of art that conceals art. It is a testament to this skill that it was only a few pages into the book before this reader felt completely drawn into the world of her protagonist. And a very cold world it is too. This is a book to read wrapped  a warm sweater, hugging a mug of  hot chocolate. 

Initially this 'Victorian' tale has something of the feel of The Secret Garden, as orphan Seren ('Star' in Welsh) arrives in a large house left desolate by the mysterious disappearance of the son of the household. Peopled with a small cast of strongly drawn characters, gripping intrigue drives the narrative relentlessly, if chillingly, forward, until it gradually morphs into something more ephemeral. Fantasy seeps in and, in the later stages, the story becomes deeply magical as it draws further into its Celtic roots. Here it is enigmatic, mysterious, almost poetic, in a way that gently echoes Catherine Fisher's earlier books, and it immerses its young audience in a  world of fantasy very different from, say, Harry Potter, but, perhaps, far more potent too. Its key is a drop of blood and a single tear. 

A crow, couplets and Christmas 

One of the imaginative triumphs of the novel is the creation of the titular clockwork crow. Superficially gruff and irascible, and indeed possibly mendacious , this tatty assembly of a creature nevertheless adds humour and warmth to the tale, and his relationship with protagonist Seren is ultimately central to a cleverly paced and structured plot.

Another of the the delightful features of the book is the inclusion, at each chapter head, of an intriguing rhyming couplet:

'Walls of ice, stars of silver,
Winter ways you'll walk forever.' (p 143)

These enhance the text magically, and add up to a lyrical synopsis of the essential story; a summation well worth the assembling. 

This is 'Fairy Tale' if you like. But it is not the Fairy Tale of Grimm or Perrault. Nor yet are these fairies from the bottom of  a Victorian garden. These folk are snow cold and terrifying.  There are perhaps echoes of Greek myth, emphasising the universality of this material. There is even more of The Snow Queen. But this is deeper rooted. This is a Fairy Tale of the Celtic people, a Fairy Tale of the western realms, a tale of the Tylwyth Teg. It was here before Anderson. It was here before we were. Long before. But it will outstay us too. And Catherine Fisher's magical book will last with it. 

For teachers, I think this would make an outstanding pre-Christmas read-aloud; one that will stretch children's language and imagination, whilst showing them that story can be completely captivating through other means than roller-coaster action or knockabout silliness. In Catherine Fisher's skilful hands, together you could start to reach gently, yet engagingly, towards the numinous. And towards Christmas too. 

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Glass of Lead and Gold by Cornelia Funke

'It is hard to lose a friend, especially when you have only one.'

A writer for all ages

Cornelia Funke is a world superstar writer of fantasy for children. We, and her young readers, should all be enormously grateful for her prolific output. One of her many and varied talents is an ability to write effectively for a wide range of age groups. Of course, her Inkheart sequence, for older children, is an established classic of the genre and fully deserves to be so. For rather younger children, she has recently added a charming sequel, The Griffin's Feather to her enchanting book, The Dragon Rider. Betwixt and between come many other gems, The Thief Lord and Ghost Knight being amongst my personal favourites.

Her Reckless sequence (sometimes known as Mirrorworld) is every bit as fine a work as Inkheart, perhaps finer in its own way, but it is a dark 'fairy tale', with strong, young adult themes, and is really for a 14+ audience. This particular work has had a rather chequered publishing history but now seems to have found a home in the UK with the wonderful 'Pushkin Press', and I am delight to see it Their paperback issues of the books formerly independently published in hardback thankfully adopt the full text, including the author's stunning illustrations, and will hopefully now help bring them to the wide YA audience here that they so richly deserve. 

However, what links all of Cornelia Funke's work is a an idiosyncrasy of imagination and wonderfully powerful storytelling. It stems, perhaps, from her German background and its particular heritage of children's writing, rooting back to the Brothers Grimm and beyond into Teutonic forests. She is certainly a writer with a unique voice - and a totally captivating one. 

Something old, something new 

Now, I am thrilled to say,  she had stuck with Pushkin (or they her) for the publication of this quite delightful little volume, The Glass of Lead and Gold. This is physically a small volume and it contents essentially a long short story, or perhaps a short novella. In this sense its closest publishing parallels are perhaps the Lyra's Oxford and Once Upon a Time in the North volumes that so valuably supplement Philip Pullman's superb ┼ôvre. 

The story is set in Londra, a 'mirror' version of London, that in many ways reflects the reality of the real Victorian city, but is also inhabited by a myriad 'faery' folk, sprites, hobs , witches, trolls and many others. In this respect it does bear some relation to the Reckless books, but otherwise, despite its teenage protagonist, it is perfectly accessible to and suitable for a younger audience too. It is  essentially a Fairy Tale, but a totally new-conceived and wondrous one. It has many of the characteristics of this genre, but adds far richer and more rounded characters as well as a much more detailed and captivating setting. 

A big little book

For such a small book, this one has an awful lot going for it. Cornelia Funke usually writes in her native German, later translated into English. Here, however, she writes straight into English and clearly demonstrates that her skill in this additional language is wonderfully strong; her prose has the vivid clarity of the very best tales and often touches in its simple effectiveness. The volume itself is beautifully produced, enhanced by the author's own pencil drawings; the sprits are a particular delight. Impoverished mudlark, Tabetha, is  subtly drawn but strong protagonist. The way she is eventually able to move, by way of many emotional ups and downs, from her allegiance to the cold, dark river 'Themse'  to a commitment to 'a human river of faces and voices', is truly heartwarming. There are also clear messages about inclusion, built around the secondary character of a girl with only one hand. In all, it is a big story between small covers.  Oh . . . And it's set at Christmas too. It would make a splendid stocking filler for many a young reader.