Friday, 23 June 2017
Saturday, 17 June 2017
Fierce originality, gripping intrigue and rich characterisation all distinguish this opening book of what promises to be an outstanding new fantsy sequence for older children and YA.
The basic premise of the story is an imaginative coup de force. It is a real delight to stumble across an author who has found such a novel and fascinating take on the 'classic' children's fantasy scenario. Here the situation of protagonist, Kellen, is essentially the polar opposite of that of Harry Potter. Harry grows up in a 'Muggle' world without magic, only to discover that he has very special powers, has been singled out for greatness and is to develop a prominent role in a wizarding world. How many fictional youths have since followed in these footsteps? Kellen, in stark contrast, has grown up in a world dominated by magic, hoping his destiny is to become a great mage, only to discover that his potential for magic is poor and his destiny is to be that of a despised underling. Nor is this some authorial ploy with a heartwarming twist awaiting when our hero finds his power after all. Kellen's story is not about becoming a wizard. It is about not becoming a wizard. It is quite a shock to the fantasy reader's sytem, but is is both a refreshing and a deeply engrossing one.
A fascinating pack
The Spellslinger story is then enriched by a quite wonderful cast of characters, many hugely rich in concept and description. Surrounding Kellen are his immediate world of spell-casters, young and old, mages and trainees. Some are good, others amost purely malevolent, but many are ambivalent in their morality and allegiences. Not least amogst these are Kellen's own family and some of his 'friends'. Added to these are a couple of characters breathtaking in their originality, invention and fascination. Not least is Ferrius Parfax, an emigmatic traveller with more than a passing resemblance to a maverick card sharp from the American Wild West. She is strong, cynical and utterly fascinating to both Kellen and the reader. She has no spell magic and as such stands opposed to the Mages of his world, yet she achieves much through her confidence and worldly-wise guile. She is a butt-kicker par excellence. A description as a 'card sharp' is, indeed, very apt for her too; she sometimes uses steel egded playing cards as very effective throwing weapons. However, she also used cards in other ways, but her decks are not those of conventional games. They are something more arcane, loosely related, perhaps, to The Tarot. She represents a rich and fascinatng exploration of ambiguity in both gender and magic. She is the antithesis of the stereotype for both the female and the wizard in fantasy. Enthralling.
Equally engaging is the embittered and vicious creature, Reichis, who becomes Kellen's 'familiar', even though the little monster deplores the term and insists that he is merely a 'business partner'. Reichis is an 'overgrown avaricious part-feline rodent,' with attitude (double plus), and is undoubtedly one of the most delicious, entertaining and original sidekicks in children's fantasy. A clear rival for Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus.
Yet what is so completely compelling about this fantasy narrative is that it achieves its power and hold without extensive swashbuckling, or massive pitched battles. Rather it is Kellen's ongoing struggle with himself, his family and his world which is so compulsively page-turning. It is a journey through character and relationships, through self-discovery. True there are revelations about the politics and history of the complex, but not confusing, world in which Kellen lives. But it is his place within that world, his future within, or perhaps even outside it, which is always most at stake. And even when the book races towards its truly exciting climactic events, Kellen's destiny is always the outcome we most desparately want to know.
All in all, Spellslinger is one of the finest example I have come across recently of a book about a young person's journey to discover who they are, to begin to carve out their own, proper place in the world. This is not only because of the ingenious premis of its story but owes equal thanks to the writerly and narrative skill with which the author develops it. His contraposing of the spell magic of the mages with the card (con?) magic of Ferrius is fascinating and revelatory, not least because its conflict rages within Kellen as much as it does in the world around him. Further, this book's enigmatic and often provocative imagery leaves plenty of scope for each reader to see themselves in it, and to understand it, or feel it, in their own particular way. This is the essence of fine fiction.
Kellern is approaching his fifteenth birthday in this first book, somewhat older than Harry Potter is in his, and this story is probably for slightly older readers. Kellern's conflicts and ordeals can be traumatic and somewhat disturbing at times. But nor does this book necessarily belong only on the YA/adult cusp, in the way of many fantasies. Its violence is never too gruesomely graphic and is occasional dalliance with romance is of a distinctly innocent, early adolescent nature. It is a story accessible to a wide young readership and will I am sure bring huge enjoyment to many.
Thanks are due to publishers Hot Key Books for bringing us the work of this fine Canadian fantasist. It is also published in the US by Zaffre Books, which should greatly enhance and speed its reputation. The second volume, Shadowblack, due out this Autumn, is awaited eagerly.
Thursday, 15 June 2017
Inspired by my love of the Bartimaeus books, and whilst waiting for the final title in the hugely enjoyable Lockwood & Co series, I decided to explore Jonathan Stroud's earlier books. I have started with this, his very first. It was published in 1999, so comes so close to my remit of children's fantasy from the 21st century that I am happy to include it. A most fascinating discovery it is too
I don't remember reading any work of contemporary children's fiction that has reminded me so strongly and positively of Alan Garner, particularly The Owl Service. It is not that Buried Fire is derivative in any way. Far from it. It is partly that both are rooted very deeply in a particular place, its landscape and its legend. I think Jonathan Stroud's location probably has more fictional embelishment than Alan Garner's, but even so. Equally each uses that legend as a powerful metaphor for their protagonists' state of mind and inner development. And more than anything both have a remarkable intensity of both structure and language.
However Jonathan Stroud's story of a sinister and malevolent presence lurking beneath the earth is also an early example of his trademark interest in the supernatural, which permeates all his books and comes to the fore again in Lockwood & Co. His story of teenage anger, expressed through almost demonic posession, is not for younger children. Its corrupting evil is, at its height, deeply disturbing. But its narrative builds grippingly and its characters fascinate even as they disquiet. It packs a very considerable emotional punch.
Buried Fire is in many ways a classic first novel from a young writer. It is literary and intensly lyrical. More recently Jonathan Stroud's writing has matured into a much more direct, accessible style, one where apparent simplicity conceals a multitude of writing skill. But that does not mean that Buried Fire is of mere academic interest. It is a fine work in its own right. Anyone looking for a teen read that is challenging intellectually and emotionally, whilst still carrying the chilling frission of supernatural horror, could do far worse than to seek it out.
Don't judge a book . . .
Unfortunately the cover of the original hardback (above) must be a contender for the most tasteless book jacket ever. There is now a paperback (below), only slightly better*. But don't be put off by either. It is a fascinating book.
Now, in between working through my huge waiting-to-read pile, I shall delve into Jonathan Stroud's other early works.
* The US edition is better still.
Tuesday, 13 June 2017
I am allowing myself one of my occasional deviations from my 'magic fiction' theme as this book is too good and too I mportant to miss.
Children in a world at war
There is a wonderful tradition of children's stories set in WWII that spreads across the English-speaking world. Amongst the many classics are Lois Lowry's Number the Stars, Judith Kerr's When Hiltler Stole Pink Rabbit, Anne Holm's I Am David, Morris Gleitzman's Once, Bette Greene's Summer of my German Soldier and, more recently, Shirley Hughes' Hero on a Bicycle and Whistling in the Dark. Amongst these are some deeply moving stories as well as some profoundly disturbing ones. Most do not shy from the terrible realities of that war, simply to accommodate their young audience - and nor should they. They are some of the finest and most important children's novels ever, and some of them have equally important sequels. They desperately need to be read by today's children, although some may well need adult support and mediation to cope with their terrors.
Evacuees and such
There is an equally important subset of such works which treat of children on the UK home front, many of them evacuees. These include Noel Stretfield's When the Siren Wailed, Nina Bawden's Carrie's War, Michelle Magorigan's incomparable Goodnight Mister Tom, and several books by the rather sadly neglected Robert Westall, Blitzcat, The Machine Gunners and the unspeakably touching The Kingdom by the Sea. They are challenging books because of their content, and some reflect the style of the time in which they were written as well as the period they portray. But all remain eminently readable. They are truly great books.
And now a new novel joins this eminent company, and more than lives up to its predecessors. Emma Carroll has recently established herself as a significant writer for children. Her several children's/YA books are set in a variety of historical periods, each with quite different themes. characters and even styles. but they are consistent in their remarkable quality of imagination and writing skill. Letters from the Lighthouse, her first WWII novel, is written in a superficially simple style, although it is one where art definitely conceals art. Her book is therefore very accessible. Emma Carroll quite wonderfully captures the voice of the young girl of who is her protagonist. Olive knows much of what is going on around her, but there is also much that she doesn't fully understand. However, she is a sensitive, thoughtful girl and her growing awareness as the story progresses gives it considerable power and potency.
An air raid, evacuation and a mystery
The book opens with a vivid depiction of a London air raid and Olive's honest, but understandably bewildered, responses make it all the more compelling - and disturbing. Subsequently she is evacuated with her younger brother to a small town on the Devon coast. Whilst this is on one level an evacuee story, it is further enriched and enliven by an associated mystery, concerning the disappearance of her older sister, a coded note, and the titular letters to the lighthouse. There is more going on in the both her family and the seaside town than Olive initially understands. Moreover the two are connected and she is determined to discover exactly what those connections are. There is a rich cast of characters in Emma Carroll's tale and many evocative descriptions. It is a story that lives on the page and consequently in the reader's mind, and memory. The lighthouse itself, for example, is a quite magical place in which it is hard to imagine any child not wanting to live, or at least stay. Much happens in Budmouth Point that is brave, even heroic. However, the author is not afraid of portraying the less attractive side of human nature too and there are also ignorance and prejudice to be dealt with in Olive's new life.
Brave treatment of difficult themes
As the book develops, many more of the terrible events of the times come to light, not least the treatment of Jews in Germany and their subsequent need to escape. It celebrates the brave deeds of some in this country who risked much to help them, but equally documents the very shameful treatment that some such refugees suffered at the hands of the British authorities. Through Olive, Emma Carroll bravely explores much that is difficult and terrible about war, she also balances it with much kindness, understanding and humanity.
This is an honest and sensitive introduction for young people to The UK home front and what happened to the Jewish race under the Nazis. It is moving, but also shocking. It could not be anything else. Hopefully it will inspire some children to explore this dark history further further, by reading some of the books mentioned earlier. There are even more deeply moving explorations to be found in books like Once, or When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit.
Despite its underlying darkness, though, this very special book is, at heart, about the enormous benefits of communities, races and religions coming together, working cooperatively, and accepting each other as fellow human beings. In this, of course, it is as much of a story about today as it is about the 1940s. Or perhaps we wish it were.
We will remember
Although I was born just after the end of WWII, I was always aware that both my parents and my grandparents lived through it, and knew of many others who didn't. Earlier in life I was privileged to meet some who had been refugees or Holocaust survivors, combatants, POWs and evacuees. I have therefore always felt very close to the war and joined easily in the mantra 'We will remember them.' Today's children are further removed from those people and events, but it is just as important, perhaps even more important, that they remember too. Books like this will help them begin to know not simply what happened, which is only part of rememberance, but how lives were affected, how people were made to feel. They need to understand that, not all that long ago, children in many ways very like themselves were forced to live very different lives. We hope our children never have to experience the like in reality. However, they can experience it vicariously, through empathy with the characters in stories, especially ones so well written and engaging as this.