The last four books I have reviewed have been, in my view, wonderful examples of the very finest children’s literature. However they were all very demanding reads, intellectually and emotionally. I was looking, next, for something that was still highly recommendable, but a little bit easier on the old grey cells. I found exactly that in Claire Fayers uber-charming latest book. I much enjoyed her previous Mirror Magic (see my post from June ‘18) but, if anything, I warmed to this book even more. It would make a great read-aloud for a younger KS2 (MG) class and is a ideal entry-level fantasy to hook children into the exciting world of magic fiction. It will equally delight many already committed young readers. It has numerous admirable, and hugely engaging features. In fact it is a storm of adventure, magic, humour and heart-warming sentiment.
Landscape and legend
In a very accessible way, it is a celebration of that tradition of landscape and legend that has been the stuff of many of our greatest works of children’s fantasy since the days of Alan Garner.
‘What is geography, after all? It’s a study of the land, and you can’t begin to understand a land and its people until you know something about their legends. When you look at a mountain, what do you see? A pile of earth and rock, or a sleeping myth?’ (p 70)
And, here, it is mythological landscape in one of its most powerful geographical locations, Wales. The tale draws on powerful folk beliefs such as The Wild Hunt and shape-shifting white hares. It evokes the potency of legendary figures, with evocative names, and of ‘earth magic’. It calls up the power of storms that crash and flash off rugged mountains and rumble down lush valleys. And it pulls all these together into an exciting adventure, pitting engaging protagonists, and mysterious other-world characters, against against evil (if somewhat incompetent) magicians.
However it also succeeds in relating its narrative to real life and its issues. A story thread that treats of a young girl coping with the recent break-up of her parents, and a consequent move to a completely unfamiliar location, will illicit identification in many children and evoke empathy in others.
In its direct, simple way, too, it is a celebration of creativity, of storytelling and image making.
‘The creators had a special place of honour in Odin’s halls. Those who told stories or made pictures or played music. They saw the world a little differently.’ (p 76)
A storm of a story
Even more, running through all of this is that bonding of a child and a pet animal that pulls at the heart strings of so many young readers (and, perhaps, older ones too). In this case it is protagonist, Jessie, very unsettled by her recent drastic changes in domestic circumstance, who finds solace in an adopted puppy, Storm.
There is too an important developing friendship with a strange ‘non-boy ‘, Morfran. However it is Storm himself who is the real star of this book, and it is his depiction that is the imaginative triumph of author Claire Frayers. For Storm is not a mortal dog, but a Storm Hound of Arawn’s (Odin’s) Wild Hunt, accidentally left behind one night as a puppy in Aberystwyth. The complete delight of the book is that Storm still has the mindset of his wild mythological essence, but the behaviours of his present puppy form. The dichotomy and incongruity between these two, and the way they are so cleverly exploited by his creator, is a source of constant humour, delight and, at times, touching pathos.
‘He was Storm of Odin, who ran with the Wild Hunt and tore the night apart for the joy of it. He was everything that was untamed and free. Humans and their little lives were over in an instant and none of them should matter to him. But, here and now, he was Storm, licking salty tears off his human’s face as she cried.’ (p 156)
The character of Storm is one of the true gems of recent children’s publications and he turns a book with many admirable qualities into a truly adorable triumph for Claire Fayers.
There is an incredibly exciting storm of a climax, too, literally and magically. Potentially heartbreaking dilemmas strike lightening through the narrative, and, as befits a story for this age group, are resolved through love and understanding. The best of accessible, younger children’s stories can have their own particular greatness; this book is most certainly one such.
And satire too?
And, in the last analysis, I cannot but warm to a writer who has her power-crazed, but somewhat buffoonish, magicians claim that they intend to ‘make magic great again.’ (p 26)
Claire Fayers’ earlier books are also published in the US (under slightly different titles). Hopefully this one will soon be published there too.