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.

Sunday, 9 January 2022

Children As Artists

And now, for once, something completely different.

If anyone is interested, I have just started a new blog where I will be building up an archive of (I think) breathtaking artwork by KS2 children, collected during my many years of teaching. Over time, I will also be developing a bank of notes pages, explaining the teaching approaches and principles that lay behind this work.

I have always believed that children deserve to be considered artists in their own right. I hope this blog will go some way towards demonstrating their truly amazing potential as well as perhaps inspiring other teachers to have high expectations of their own young artists.

The new blog can be found at I hope you will enjoy it.

Monday, 6 December 2021

My recommended (children’s) reads for Christmas

Here is a small selection for anyone seeking to read or share books that have a seasonal feel without being overtly connected to specific religion; for children’s fiction enthusiasts who, perhaps, want to explore a little further than the titles currently piled up in the high street bookshops.

These are not reads for those seeking edge-of-the-seat adventure, nor heart-on-the-sleeve sentiment. But they are, to my mind, richly imaginative, highly sensitive escapism, that will bring thoughtful connection to aspects of the winter holiday season that are generally older, and perhaps deeper, than those of Santas, elves, glow-nosed reindeer, or (dare I say it) talking pigs. 

A ‘modern classic’

Far and away my top pick would be Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. I know this title is often recommended, but rightly so. For any who haven’t read it, or those who wish to return to it, it is a near-perfect Christmas fit. Tapping into the imagery of ancient belief and custom, this remarkable fantasy spans the days from Midwinter’s Eve through Christmas. It delves far beneath the modern commercial celebration into the underlying need to survive the darkest days of the year and look for the return of the light. Both terrifying and uplifting, it is a breathtaking piece of writing. The whole sequence of novels of which this is the title work is well worth reading, but it is this particular volume that is the transcendent masterpiece. 

Cozy intrigue

Another strong recommendation is Greenglass House by Kate Milford. This is a much gentler book than the previous one, but still combines intriguing mystery with ancient traditions. American in origin, its action takes place through the period of winter ‘holidays’ and involves a fascinating cast of diverse characters. It is a delightful read in itself and a great introduction to the strangely wonderful world of this remarkable author. 

Two recent wintery gems

In this seasonal post I am not trying to cover the latest releases, so I am happy to pick out again two books from a couple of years ago. Neither Sophie Anderson’s The Girl Who Speaks Bear nor Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder are about Christmas as such, but they each have a pervading wintery setting that makes them very fitting reads for these holidays. They also happen to be two of the finest children’s novels of recent years, richly imaginative, compelling and enriching.

Pritchett magic lives on

One of my all time favourite fantasies for children (upwards) is Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series. It has everything: humour in spades, charm, charms, deep roots in folklore and important, but gently communicated, messages about life. In short, it has real humanity. All of the series is magnificent and, if anything, it gets better as it goes along. However Wintersmith is the one particularly appropriate to the season, and, like all the books in the sequence, can be read as a one-off. Wintery magic for sure.

Nostalgia choice

I admit my final choice is pure nostalgia.  Marjorie Lloyd wrote three Fell Farm books in the 1950s which were among the reading joys of my own childhood. Clearly, Fell Farm for Christmas is the one pertinent to this list. It can really only now be read as a period piece. Yes, it is about a family of white, middle-class children having holiday ‘adventures’, and I am mightily glad that today’s young readers are offered fiction with much more diverse content and representation. But at least this one avoids the preoccupation with thwarting villains or finding treasure, so ubiquitous at the time, and is deeply (and fairly authentically) rooted in the farms and fells of The Lake District. For those who just about remember, or those who wish to discover more about it, here is the simpler, more seasonally rooted, Christmas (and childhood) of the past. Whether it was better or not is a matter of viewpoint. 

Saturday, 27 November 2021

My Books of the Year 2021

Although I have taken a break from writing up this blog for much of the last year, I have no more taken a break from reading that I could have taken a break from breathing. Amongst very many enjoyable reads, there were a small cluster of children's books that stood out head and shoulders above the rest. They are not  necessarily the books that have received the most popular acclaim (although a few of them are), but, for me, they each combine quite outstanding writing with startling originality and something really important to say that could help our world flourish in the future.

‘The storied ones are powerful transformers and inventors of patterns for still possible flourishing.’ (Ursula K. Le Guin The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction)

I call these children’s books, but they are mostly for older children and some stray into the category generally called Young Adult. Broadly, perhaps they are suitable for those from around 10 to 14, depending on interest and reading experience. However, I always think it dangerous to place narrow limits on age appropriateness. Books are books. As long as young readers have ready access to a wide range, they generally find the right ones at the right time, which can be both earlier and later than we might expect. Certainly every one of these novels is of a quality that really has no upper age limit.

So, here ‘in no particular order’ are my best of the best.

I consider David Almond one of our finest living authors, in any genre. Outstanding novel though it is, those who know his work only through Skellig, are missing a whole shelf of wonderful titles, built up over the past twenty-three years or so. To me, his masterpiece is the relatively recent The Colour of the Sun (see post from August ‘19), but his latest, Bone Music, comes close to being its equal, and is perhaps more accessible to somewhat younger readers. David Almond, like Alan Garner before him, is a deep explorer of particular landscape, landscape that includes both its terrain and its indigenous people, landscape that defines, indeed owns, both the author’s body and his imagination. It is a quality rare beyond price. Bone Music is, in many ways, the most overtly mystical of David Almond’s books to date, the most magical. But this is not the magic of Harry Potter. This is earth magic; the magic of the shaman; magic that links life and death, transience and eternity. This is a magic that grounds humanity in the very earth, but it is also the magic of the sky, the wind, the air. And the link between the two is music. Bone music. Through this latest book, David Almond has the courage to ask whether nature would be better off without us. A thought. No more. And his eventual answer is no - so long as the young can build, or restore, a better world than we have managed. A rewilding, not just of nature but of the human soul. ‘It’s no good rewilding the world,’ he says, if we don’t rewild  ourselves.’ (p 75) This wondrous book is a hymn of praise and thanksgiving -  for those who are both ancient and young, for those who are both wild and quiet, for those who are the past and the present and the future. For those who change the world. 

World War II has proved fertile ground for children’s writers and some of the very finest stories of the last seventy or so years have drawn tellingly on this traumatic time. Many wonderful novels from UK writers have featured evacuation and life on the home front, but some of the finest and most important books of all have come from authors sharing insight into the abomination that was the Nazi treatment of the Jewish people. One of the greatest of these is Morris Gleitzman’s Once. However, this particular work is even further distinguished by the fact that its author has followed the experience of his protagonist, Felix, into the war’s immediate aftermath and right through into its consequences for a very long lifetime. This has resulted in a whole stunning series of books with single adverb titles: Then, After, Soon, Maybe, and Now. I have encountered few, if any, other writers who can sympathetically convey profoundly moving and troubling experience through such seemingly simple yet compelling storytelling; heart-rending empathy meets a golden strand of hope. Now Morris Gleitzman has completed his sequence with a final titleIt may well be possible to read Always as a stand-alone novel, but it is as the culmination of his ‘adverb’ series that its greatness lies. This final volume, moves on to deal with racism focused on black people. The author hits us in the face with one final, cruel, but inescapable reality, that the hatred and prejudice that drove the Holocaust is still present in our world.  His story can feel melodramatic at times; I wish it were. Recent incidents of appalling racism at international football matches only confirm its underlying authenticity. Most importantly, however, Morris Gleitzman challenges all this ongoing horror with a wonderful truth: that those who fight hatred now are kin to those who fought it in the past. Together their lives throw a beam of hope into the darkness. This is an unmissable book and the complete sequence one of the most important in the whole canon of children’s literature; a story for all generations and all time.

Any UK readers of children’s fiction who ignore the work of US authors are seriously missing out; some of the very best examples of the genre are currently being written across the Atlantic. One of my top favourite American authors is Kate Milford. She has now written a substantial number of fascinating novels, almost all complete in themselves, but also all with links to each other, sometimes direct, sometimes tangential. Together they are building up one of the most imaginative creations in children’s literature, a world that she collectively calls Nagspeake, with the most recent books identified as the Greenglass House stories. (See my reviews of May 2020 and earlier.) To that suite of novels she has now added The Raconteur’s Commonplace Book. Ostensibly a collection of stories, this actually pulls together as a complete work on a remarkable number of levels. It consciously echos classic works where travellers tell each other tales, but here the assemblages of persons (and tales) is in no way random, and even the book itself is ostensibly edited by a character in the overall narrative. It is all deliciously complex. A ravishing and completely riveting book in its own right, its stories are sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing, and often draw on legend, both real and imagined. They are even, at times, somewhat mystical, metaphysical, The whole is richly imaginative and hugely entertaining. Yet it is not in itself that this latest book’s greatest value lies. If all of Kate Milford’s diverse novels are spokes of the same wheel, then this book is the hub that holds them all together, even some of her earlier, mysterious Arcarne books. Those coming new to Kate Milford with this book are in for a delightful treat. It will, I am sure lead into exploration of a great deal more of the world hinted at here. But for those already who have already discovered much of Nagspeake, it will be the pursest joy. It does not answer all questions posed in the other books and some of its answers are as perplexing as the original questions, but I sincerely hope this just means there are more Nagspeake delights still to come, more links, more questions and possibly even more answers.

Another of my favourite US children’s authors is Anne Ursu. Her three most recent titles, Breadcrumbs, The Real Boy and The Lost Girl have each been singular, imaginative, richly insightful and challenging; major contributions to the canon of literature for young people. (See my reviews from Dec ‘19 and earlier.) Her latest book, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is generally rather more straightforward, and perhaps more widely accessible, but none the worse for that. In fact it is highly successful on two levels. First, it is a cracking good story. Set in a world of  ostensibly ‘good’ sorcerers and ‘bad’ witches, it is one of the most original and engaging fantasies I have read in a long time. Protagonist Marya is summoned suddenly to the mysterious institution of the title. But this is far from any Hogwarts, more of a reformatory than a school. Together with other girls similarly labelled ‘troubled’, she seeks to unravel the mysteries of what the place is, why they are there and, indeed, what is going on in the whole country. This makes for a constantly intriguing  plot as Marya gradually unearths secrets and even more gradually understands their implications, building towards a startling and wildly exciting climax. On another level, though, the whole story is an extended metaphor for societies where girls (and perhaps other individuals too) are denied the opportunity to fulfil their potential by men who cannot abide the threat to their own authority and power. Its feminism is strong and clear, but without ever being strident, and its ultimate message is hopeful without being naively optimistic. The book is affecting on both levels and is just the read to provide much needed encouragement  and support to ‘troubled girls’  here, as well as in the States, and, perhaps even more pertinently at the present time, in certain other countries of our world too. However, many boys could also do to read it and would, I am sure, actually enjoy it as well as learning much. The author’s trademark iterative images give the book considerable depth, beneath its entertaining narrative. For example, the relationship between her created world’s  tapestries and its history, is powerful and revelatory - and very pertinent to our own world, as, indeed, is the whole work.

Philip Reeve is not only one of our finest writers for young people, but he is also a very versatile one. Aside from many entertaining books for younger readers (often working with Sarah McIntyre), he has created two towering, but completely distinctive,  masterpieces of speculative fiction for  MG/YA, the Mortal Engines sequence and (my own favourite) the Railhead trilogy. There are also splendid stand-alone novels, including the rightly acclaimed  Here Lies Arthur. His new book, Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep, is again very different in feel from his others, although it shares with its predecessors both the strength of imagination and the quality of writing that are Philip Reeve’s hallmarks. Set somewhere in the early nineteenth century, a small but rich cast of characters living on a wild and remote remote island, act out the conflict between ‘enlightened’ ideas of science and reason and the powerful, elemental ‘magic’ of the sea. The writing is superbly descriptive, strongly evoking landscapes, weathers and moods. Much of the earlier part of the story feels lyrical and echoes the writing of the period in which it is set, without ever feeling in any way archaic. But, however gentle it’s opening, the story rapidly builds to a cataclysmic and hugely exciting sequence of climaxes. And, in the end, land and sea, reality and imagination, are both bound and unbound by a different quality of magic, human love. This is another treasurable addition to children’s literature.

I love beautiful books as physically objects, as well as treasuring their content, and so I was initially drawn to Julia and the Shark, as I am sure many others will be, by the striking loveliness of the volume itself. Tom de Freston’s breathtaking illustrations are strewn across almost every page. His iterative images of starlings and sharks, often against greyscale swirls or sky, sea and storm, and with striking highlights of yellow, make this book quite stunning visually. The periodic interleaving of translucent overlays, which further grey out their neighbouring pages, only adds to the mesmerising effect. It does not take long, however, to recognise that Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s writing is equally special. Her apparently simple but deeply truthful capturing of the voice of protagonist, Julia, as she narrates experience in meticulous and poignant detail, is utterly compelling. Consequently, by the time inner and outer  storms reach their height, the reader can identify fully with every nuance of the young girl’s emotion. The illustrations then become infinitely more telling as they are recognised for what they truly are, a totally integral element of the narrative. This is a brilliantly sensitive, deeply moving, and ultimately positive book about accepting others and learning to be yourself. Many books share a similar theme, but this symphony of images, graphic and verbal, is surely amongst the finest. 

Brian Selznick is not only one of the finest children’s book illustrators around, but also an author of considerable skill. When he combines the two (as he often does these days) he displays an astounding ability to engage a reader in highly original narrative experience that communicates deep humanity. He has already made a definitive contribution to the international canon of children’s literature with his three hybrid text and graphic books. The first of these The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is already world renowned. His subsequent Wonderstruck and The Marvels, whilst attracting wide admiration, still need to be better know. I hold The Marvels to be the finest of all; a work of unspeakable tenderness. And now, in Kaleidoscope we have something slightly different, whilst still encapsulating all that is essentially Brian Selznick. Again there is the combination of the author’s own images and text, though now presented as a fractured narrative that reflects its title; a myriad of story fragments; disparate images in words and pictures, like the faceted reflections of a kaleidoscope. And the author leaves those pieces for the reader to fit together, responding in their own particular way to the countless possibilities. Very much in tune with recent times, the  lack of a coherent storyline makes this a rather more challenging read than its predecessors. But I believe many sensitive and committed young readers will be up for it. We too often underestimate them. All children have had friends, or longed for them. Some will have lost loved ones, or know cutting loss in other ways. And shimmering across this book’s disparate views are images of a close friend, James, seemingly lost. The glimpses of James are not consistent. They are split and reflected across time, across memory, across imagination. James can be a school days companion, an imagined friend, a conjured genie, a dream, a ghost, a character in a tale. Yet James’s reality is there for each of us to find. One of Brian Selznick’s great talents is in drawing faces. This time, however, he does not draw James’s face with his pencil, but leaves it for us to glimpse in the shifting multi-mirrored images of his kaleidoscope. But, however we see it, we will find in it love, we will see heart-rending loss and somewhere, within and beyond time, we will see hope. It is another very great book, wild certainly, dangerous perhaps, but transcendently beautiful. 

Some books are great because of their complexity, their richness, their intricacy, but others can be great because of they are simple, or at least deceptively simple. Dragon Skin is one of these. Karen Foxlee is a very talented Australian author, one of a number of wonderful children’s writers from that continent. Sadly books published in Australia are difficult to get in the UK, but we are fortunate that Karen Foxlee’s children’s novels have also been published here Her first masterpiece for this age group, Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy, was brought out by Hot Key Books and the heart-rending Lenny’s Book of Everything (one of my Books of the Year 2019) is published by Pushkin Children’s, as is this, her latest. And Dragon Skin is another absolute gem of a book. For starters it gives a vivid and evocative picture of a mining town in outback Australia and of the life of a child growing up there. But Dragon Skin is far more than this. Bereavement, and the way a child deals with it, is a recurrent theme in Karen Foxlee’s books and it features again here. Ten year-old Pip has suddenly lost Mika, the boy who has been her very close friend for two years, and is struggling to cope without him. The often highly entertaining, and touching, story of their friendship is interleaved with the narrative of her most recent few days without him. But Pip has other huge problems too. Her mother is in an abusive relationship, as indeed, it appears, Mika’s mother has been too. The author uses the novel to explore how deeply children are affected by such abominable home situations. Yet even with these twin themes, Dragon Skin is not in the least maudlin or depressing. Karen Foxlee’s genius is to communicate trauma and deep emotion with a light touch. She treats Pip and her situation with profound sympathy, but also a good deal of humour, and captures her young voice perfectly. However, Karen Foxlee understand boys well too. Her conjuring of the overtly resilient, but inwardly vulnerable Mika is equally brilliant. It is just the behaviour of some men that appalls her - and quite right too. All of this is told through the ‘fantasy’ of  rescuing and adopting a baby dragon,  a potentially clich├ęd idea, but which is here handled with masterly effectiveness. Despite dealing responsibly with some very real horrors, Dragon Skin is touchingly simple and simply very touching. It is also, ultimately, supportive and encouraging. It will be more accessible for younger children than many of my book choices this year, although this certainly does not imply that it should only be read by the very young. It may be a short, simple book, but it is ‘Sky-huge. Galaxy-huge. Universe-huge,’ (p 318). 

Last year’s new book from Padraig KennyThe Monsters of Rookhaven, is a highly original and hugely enjoyable novel that delivers a whole ‘family’ of weird and gruesome monsters but also manages to be far more thoughtful and sensitive than this subject matter suggests. (See my review from Nov ‘21.) Now we have The Shadows of Rookhaven to follow on. It could well have been that a second Rookhaven book had less impact. To those who have already read the first, the fascinating scenario and characters are already familiar and quite a few surprises and shocks have already been sprung. However, there is no second best about this sequel. To half-human Mirabelle, and other key characters from the first book, Padraig Kenny adds a riveting new main character, Billy, also ‘misbegotten’ like Mirabelle. The plot here is, if anything, even more compelling than in the first book. I don’t think I have been so heavily invested in a story since living through the appalling prospect of ‘intercision’ in Northern Lights. The electrifying word-painting and multi-faceted storytelling, switching swiftly between several perspectives, adds considerably to the depth and complexity of this thrilling, sometimes shocking, narrative. Again several thoughtful and thought-provoking themes lie under the story, issues around  the rejection or acceptance of outsiders, around mortality and loss, around family the importance of forgiveness. As with the first book, Edward Bettison’s dramatic and telling images, and Rachel Vale’s outstanding design, are so powerful that they can only be considered integral to the book’s overall quality  - and its stunning impact. This is another piece of remarkable literary creativity and skill. However, there are crucial aspects of the story, not least those concerning Mirabelle and the disturbingly enigmatic monster known as Piglet, that gain their true effectiveness only in the light of what emerged in the first book. Despite significant new elements, this is very much a continuing story, so I am going to cheat just slightly and count the two novels together as one of my books of the year. Anyone interested in the very finest of recent fiction for young people should read both. 

The only reason I have not included Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker in this list is that I am not at all sure that it is a children’s book. (Although it may be for some.) It is really beyond classification. However, it is a very great book. (Review November  ‘21.)

Finally, my choice for Children’s Debut of the Year would be The Ash House by Angharad Walker. (See my post from November ‘21.) My Adult Book of the Year is Bewilderment by Richard Powers; as well as being a fine novel, it has a great deal to say to anyone concerned with raising or educating children. My book quote of the year is from The Giant’s Almanac by Andrew Zurcher‘It is only by seeing through the eyes of another that we may avoid dying while we are still alive.’ That is the alchemy of reading books. Base metal into gold.

Friday, 26 November 2021

Sisters of the Lost Marsh by Lucy Strange

Cover: Helen Crawford-White

Lucy Strange is rapidly consolidating her reputation as a fine writer for older children/younger teens (and upwards) and her latest book is again outstanding. I both admire and enjoy her work enormously.

For a start she is a consummate storyteller. Her novels, usually with a period setting, have a distinctive originality and eschew sensational action adventure in favour of the sensitive exploration of character and family relationships. They are nevertheless compelling narratives crafted with consummate skill to hold readers’ emotions in thrall alongside their eagerness to know how things will resolve.

It delights me that Lucy Strange is very much her own writer. She does not capitulate to the latest trends in children’s publishing and never churns out the same old characters and storylines with only minor variations. Rather she roots her stories very much in some of the best traditions of children’s fiction, exploiting different specific places together with their folklore and superstitions. 

Sisters of the Lost Marsb is a wonderful example of all of this.  In her previous book, Lucy Strange drew effectively on the landscape of The Lake District. This time it is the area of Romney Marsh which gives the story its very atmospheric grounding. Set in a rural past, the narrative is seeded with enough dialect to give it a feeling of authenticity, without making it hard to read, and her story is steeped in the folklore and superstition of the area as much as in the salty waters of the pervasive marshland. 

With a cursed family of six daughters, a cruel father, a sister ‘sold’ in exchange for a horse, a travelling fair, infections with marsh fever and suspicions of witchcraft, this novel bursts with the trials and traumas of our rural past. It might almost be thought of as ‘Thomas Hardy Light’, a deep, dark tale of family loyalty and conflict in an England as was, or at least might have been. Yet from these rich, deep roots, Lucy Strange grows her own new narrative of spreading branches and mesmerising foliage. It evokes the past with new vividness and compelling involvement.

Sunday, 14 November 2021

Lionheart Girl by Yaba Badoe

Cover: Leo Nickolls

‘I have to tell you plain-plain, my corner of the world is an inside-out, upside -down, twist-in-time place where strange things happen.’ (p 14)

Speaking of Ghana 

One of the very finest writers to have emerged in the last few years is Yaba Badoe. She has also added wonderfully to the diversity of books and the promotion of black heritage. Her first two books are outstanding, well worth seeking out by any who have not yet read them. However, there seems to be a widely held view that her third, Lionheart Girl is her finest yet and this is an opionion I fully support.

One of the first things to strike me about this book is that the language is ravishing, musical. Its vocabulary and syntax, its cadences, are colloquially Ghanaian enough to evoke a different place and culture without feeling forced or obtrusive. The rhythm and the heat of both the story and its telling are deeply evocative of West Africa. They beat so much with its heart, that they take us there, mind and body. Yet whilst the location is beautifully painted, this is a story of inscape as much as landscape, magic as much as superficial reality.

The magic of place 

Amidst all the current devastatingly authentic tales of abuse, of displacement, of slavery, refugees and the victims of discrimination - tales we very much need to hear - Yaba Badoe’s is rather different. Hers is a story where real human lives meet poetry and magic. But this is not the magic of Europe, not wizards and dragons, but the magic of second sight and possession, of the ghosts of ancestors and of spirit animals - the magic of Africa.  This is a tale of heritage, the heritage of place, of myth, of the spirit as much as of the body. I suppose, in one sense, its deep rooting in African  myth is a broad equivalent of those white children’s stories drawing on Celtic legend and magic. And it makes a compelling story, one in which the young and black can connect with their their mythic roots, but also one that is deeply powerful, mesmerising, for all readers. At heart it is not only archetypically West African, but archetypically human.

Adinkra gold, literary gold

This would be a family drama, except that the family at its heart is one of female ‘witches’, in the African magic sense. Instead, it is one explored and expressed through the other. Protagonist, Sheba has a close relationship with her female relatives, especially her grandmother, and all these characters are drawn with wonderful richness and sensitivity. This is extended into her relationship with  the boy who becomes her ‘long time friend’, a boy with the unusual name, Maybe. Yet at the dark heart of Sheba’s family, is a pervasive ‘evil’ presence. As she comes into her own power, will Sheba find the strength to drive out the malevolent presence of her own mother? Internal monologue though it is, Lionheart Girl is every bit as gripping as any action adventure. However, the vital message at the heart of this complex, sophisticated book is relatively simple: ‘Great -grandchild of mine, you can become a champion of our family, our village. . . . You have it in you.’ (p 163)

‘The best kind of magic (says Sheba) is belief in myself and my ancestors.’  (p 113) She is not wrong. Probably for older children and upwards, this is a lionhearted book (in a spiritual sense) and not to be missed. It will evoke deeper identity for readers whose heritage it is, and a new vista of empathetic understanding if that heritage is not directly theirs.

Monday, 8 November 2021

Terciel and Elinor by Garth Nix

Still one of the very best

The cover quote on my copy of this book is from Leigh Bardugo and says: ‘There is no joy like returning to the Old Kingdom.’

Whilst shying away from the absolute nature of this statement, I do find myself in general agreement with it. It is one of reading’s many joys to return to the ‘Old Kingdom’ fantasy world of Garth Nix.

I must say, I am not greatly enamoured of much YA fantasy these days. It too frequently regurgitates the same tropes with only relatively minor variations of character and plot. However the Old Kingdom books are most certainly an exception. I may well have a certainly loyalty to them, having followed the fortunes of its world ever since the publication of the first book, Sabriel, here in UK, almost twenty years ago. But it is more than that. Garth Nix’s creation is one of the most original and compelling of post-Tolkien fantasy worlds aimed at this readership. Only a few currently rival it. 

Backwards and forwards

Garth Nix’s is a complex world, divided by a wall that almost (but not quite) keeps southern, non-magic Ancelstierre secure from the magic of the northern ‘Old Kingdom’. The doings of this northern realm principally involve ongoing conflict between the wondrous ‘Charter Magic’ and its dangerous counterpart, ‘Free Magic’. This means a constant battle against the threat of the malevolent dead for whoever is the current supreme mage, the Abhorson. In all this, the author has given himself so much scope for imaginative plotting, fully exploited, that he never fails to thrill and compel. He has also been very clever, over the years, in not over-working one set of characters. Instead he has moved his stories significantly forwards and backward in Old Kingdom history, giving himself the opportunity for fresh characters and scenarios, whilst still maintaining the integrity of his overall creation - and retaining the loyalty of his readers. 

Page turner

The latest extension of this world, Terciel and Elinor, is no exception. In a reading order that reflects the history of the Old Kingdom, this book comes after Clariel but before the original trilogy that starts with Sabriel. Although his two new eponymous protagonists meet early in the story and, inevitably, join up before conclusion, for most of the book we follow their fortunes separately. The employment of interleaved narrative strands is, of course, not new, and is classically found in The Lord of The Rings, following the ‘Breaking of the Fellowship’. However, Garth Nix uses this technique in masterly fashion, ensuring his reader is engrossed in the situation of one of character, right up to the point of being desperate to know what happens next, before switching to repeat the contrivance with the other. It is an approach guaranteed to keep the pages turning,  and it certainly does here. 

Humour, tragedy, romance and magic

Both main characters are vividly and evocatively drawn, as are other key figures in the narrative. However, Garth Nix always writes particularly strong female characters and, if anything, it is the drama-loving Elinor who is the more interesting of the leads. The author also has an engaging wit, when he chooses to use it. This was well in evidence in his recent stand-alone fantasy, The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, itself a very entertaining, if generally lighter, read. His lively and sometimes cheeky humour makes some appearance in Elinor’s story too, although this is balanced by very affecting loss of people dear to her, making for rich and rounded writing. It is her story that essentially prevents that of ‘Abhorsen-in-Waiting’ Terciel from being just another apprentice magician scenario. However, her presence, together with the author’s masterly storytelling overall, make this a compelling read. There is a touch of romance too, of course, but whilst endearing, this does not prevent the narrative from revolving around the captivating ‘Charter Magic’ (with bells and even some whistles!) and the inevitable battle with horrendous evil, in this case in the person of powerful ‘Greater Dead’ magician, Kerrigot.

Not to be missed

It is a good while since I sank into a fantasy and luxuriated there in quite the way I have done in this one. I am confident that followers of the Old Kingdom books will love this new manifestation. Fantasy lovers from about 12yrs upwards who don’t know this sequence at all are missing out. 

Saturday, 6 November 2021

You Are a Champion by Marcus Rashford (with Carl Anka)

A very special choice 

This is perhaps an unexpected book choice for me: populist, uber-accessible, non-fiction. Yet it is one of the most important children’s books of this year, and indeed of many years. I cannot but add my small voice to that of the many who have already said so. This is a book that needs the support of us all. 

You Are a Champion is important because it is out there - and out there with Marcus Rashford’s name and photo on the cover. Role models are of huge significance to children and Marcus Rashford has successfully established himself as a role model for enormous numbers of children; particularly black children, but also white; particularly boys, but also girls; particularly the sporty, but also the non-sporty. That such a person is clearly and strongly associating himself with the message in this book is unspeakably wonderful. These are some of the most important things that can be said to children. It doesn’t matter that they have been said countless times before, over years, indeed centuries. Many children will now hear them afresh.  Yet it must be remembered that, as with many self-help and self-improvement books, simply writing these truths down, or even reading them, does not make them happen. It certainly does not make them happen easily. There can be an enormous journey between understanding their meaning on paper and understanding their meaning in life. For this reason the book is perhaps just as important for adults as for children, as a clear reminder of the messages we need to be constantly giving in the things we say to children, in the way we behave towards then and the way we react to them. However such a book can also ignite sparks, and that is a great thing in itself. He and his co-author, Carl Anka, are to be sincerely thanked. Marcus Rashford himself also clearly identifies one of the most important routes to making these ideals a reality for children:

For me, learning how to believe in myself came when I started reading books; it showed me how to explore the possibilities within myself. One thing I love about books is how every person can take something different from them. Books are powerful because they allow you to dream about different worlds and to look at things in different ways.’ 

Enough said.