fantasy

Two Witchy Reads

Witches aren’t just for Halloween, as my primary school book club recently reminded me. We look at books by theme rather than all reading the same title, and when we chose witches, the children and I were quite overwhelmed with the breadth of novels available. Witches make a great topic in literature – ‘witch’ books often portray women as ‘other’, and invite the reader to assess why that is, why women have historically been cast as mysterious or outside of normal morality. They look into ideas of good and evil, delve into societal fears, utilise magic, and can bring to the fore how witchcraft was viewed historically.

how to hang a witchThe author, Adriana Mather, has more inclination to write about Salem witches than most, being descended from Cotton Mather, one of the men responsible for the gruesome Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Her novel, How to Hang a Witch, tells the story of fifteen-year-old Samantha Mather, an alter ego almost, a fictional descendant of Cotton Mather, who is moving back to Salem to live in her deceased grandmother’s house.

The setting of the book is enormously well-crafted, from the spooky empty streets in which it feels as if a ghost lurks at every corner, and the various nooks and crannies the characters inhabit, as well as the haunted house in woodland, a cemetery and other ‘witchy’ tropes. The book starts in autumn of course, with the crispness in the air and leaves, and the aura of Halloween that pervades the shops and houses.

Mathers sets out to parallel modern-day school bullying with the bullying behind the Salem witch trials. To some extent she does do this, by casting a popular group at school as the Descendants of the witches on trial, and by introducing a love triangle between a ghost of a boy from the seventeenth century with Sam’s contemporary cute boy-next-door. So far, so contrived, but once the reader suspends all disbelief, and throws themselves into the various elements of the paranormal that occur, this is a fun, romance-filled romp of a YA novel, perfect for those who suck up box sets on Netflix of pretty looking teens with darkness bubbling beneath.

To her credit, Mathers introduces a fair amount of historical detail of the Salem Witch Trials, although those really interested would be wise to fact-check what they’ve consumed. The history in the book piques the interest. You can buy it here.

begone the raggedy witchesFor younger readers (10+), and more magical and far more literary, is Begone the Raggedy Witches by Celine Kiernan, the first in The Wild Magic Trilogy. This beautifully written fantasy adventure begins with a spooky car journey home, in which Mup feels that she is being watched by witches in the trees. She is not wrong, and when they come for her Mam, and take her back to Witches’ Borough, a suppressed magical realm accessed through the forest, Mup has no choice but to follow.

With the ghost of her newly deceased aunt never far removed, and the shapeshifting that overtakes her baby brother, as well as the creatures she meets in this new witchy realm, this is fantasy of the highest order. This gripping tale is told from the third person point of view of a protagonist, Mup, who is vastly grounded, and practical – making the fantasy seem incredibly real.

With richness in vocabulary, some impinged-upon characters who may only speak in rhyme, and a spooky atmosphere to rival the darkest of Frances Hardinge’s novels, this is a treat.

The true delight though, comes from the position in which Kiernan has placed Mup. Although heroine of her own adventure, in reality, the adventure belongs to her parents. Her mother has been spirited into the other realm because she is in fact, heir to the witchy throne, and Mup’s father has been kidnapped as a bargaining tool to entice her mother. Mup’s grandmother is the evil queen, and Mup is largely cast as ‘in the way’; asked to look after her baby brother whilst the grownups battle over the kingdom.

This gives the opportunity for vast amounts of humour, pathos and real insight, as children will read and sympathise greatly with Mup – children so often told to wait while the grown-ups deal with the big issues.

Add to this a witchy world in which there is a matriarchy across all tribes, and a complicated relationship between Mup and her mother anyway, and this is a fascinating and compelling read. Even more satisfying is that despite being first of a trilogy, the ending to this first novel does not feel like a cheat – it wraps up nicely and yet leaves the reader wanting more. Not to be missed. You can buy it here.

 

 

Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy

brightstormThe great era of exploration is over. Much of our world has been seen and documented, but humans haven’t lost their drive to be the first, to make their mark, and certainly haven’t let go of the idea of heroism. But so often the marks humans make, the braveries people display, are small acts of heroism in a known world. So, we turn to fiction to replicate that experience of exploring the unknown, of seeking out a new world and experiencing new adventure within it.

Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy is doubly exciting, because it is not just the reader who is doing the exploring, but the protagonists too.

Twelve-year-old twins, Maudie and Arthur Brightstorm hear that their explorer father has died in an attempt to reach South Polaris – the very southernmost point in their world. Not only that, but he broke the moral code of explorers, stealing fuel from his competitors on his way. The daring twins are intent upon not only clearing their father’s name, believing he would never do such a thing, but also exploring the region for themselves – after all they are Brightstorms.

What could be a run-of-the-mill adventure story, Hardy turns into a fresh, insightful and clever novel of exploration with her clear-eyed writing, and her host of memorable characters.

Maudie possesses exemplary engineering skills, using her analytical mind to solve problems and provide technical solutions. She may be sited in a fantasy landscape, but she approaches technical tasks with a modern outlook – pragmatic and able – there is no gender discrimination here. She forges a prosthetic iron arm for her brother, but has the foresight to see that when they are lost, with the addition of a pool of water, it could act as a compass.

Indeed, Arthur is almost the only male in this female dominated cast, and it is he who shows his sensitive side – painfully aware of the feelings of others, sensing shifts in body language, danger in the air. But he too is an explorer – brave and intrepid.

Maudie and Arthur join Harriet Culpepper’s expedition to track back to South Polaris, on her ingenious sky-ship that uses water as fuel in a new environmentally friendly development, much to the admiration and envy of her peer explorers. What’s more, her ship has a canny disguise, to avoid saboteurs, and even I was envious of this quirk.

The environment is touched upon further with mentions of whale huntings, and humans’ domination of the landscape, all cleverly woven into the story without being preachy or self-congratulatory.

But as well as being aware of our modern leanings towards gender equality, saving the environment and STEM solutions, Hardy also shows us a mirror of our own world in the inequalities of hers. There are the slums of Lontown, the drudgery and hard work. There is the indignation of those of the Third Continent, who do not like to be called by such a derogatory name. And there is also, of course, a villainous explorer who will stop at nothing to sate her ambition.

But among the cogs and compasses, there is humour too: the cook Felicity and her penchant for endless cups of tea, Harriet and her dashing ways of pushing through the darkest moments.

Small flickers of other inspirational books light the path for readers too – I sensed a glimmer of Pullman in the ‘sapient’ animals of the Brightstorm world, who are less present than the daemons of Northern Lights, but also crucial to the plot, as well as the helpfulness of wolves from Piers Torday’s The Last Wild, and many more besides.

But mainly, Brightstorm feels fresh and modern – because although Hardy has veered into fantasy by creating her own world for the Brightstorm twins, she shows us its beauty through its simplicity. None of the landscapes are hard to envisage, none of the ships’ whirrings hard to grasp. This is a beautifully written children’s novel, matched by exquisite production with foil on the cover and a map on the gatefold.

It is testament to the accessibility of Hardy’s novel that it makes the reader think at the end, in the same way that the talking wolves ask the question to the twins – why is it that humans have the need to explore? When it is not for food or shelter – is it to seek the truth? Or to discover the beauty and complexity of the world? Like fiction, it is both and more. To discover a bit of ourselves, and a taste of the possibilities that are out there. Brightstorm is a triumph – it’s time to take the adventure. You can buy it here.

Other Worlds: A Guest Blog by Guy Jones

Guy Jones

I’m delighted to host Guy Jones on the site today, talking about his ‘other worlds’ influences. Guy has spent much time writing for the theatre, including the West End musical Never Forget, but now he has turned his talents to children’s books, and his debut novel, The Ice Garden is a wonderful adventure. You can read my ‘book of the week’ review here. Guy talks below about why, despite enjoying gritty realism, sometimes we like to leap into ‘another world’. 

It started with Tolkein. My dad reading a little of The Lord of The Rings to me at bed each night. Spooling out, bit by bit, a reality that seemed as rich and complex as my own, but with the added benefit of dwarves and elves and wizards. But it wasn’t just the narrative itself that carried me along, it was the sense of there being an entire world – history, language, culture – of which the tale I was hearing was just a fragment. If we went for a walk I would imagine armies of orcs pouring down the hillside or hobbits padding through the trees. It wasn’t only a story, it was fuel poured onto my own imagination.

And then so many more… The grimy, serious fantasy of Earthsea, the raging creativity of Ray Bradbury, the beautiful Dark is Rising series, and the near-perfection of Discworld. And through all that, slowly grasping a new pleasure – stories where the uncanny and the magical rub up against the real world until it’s not clear where one starts and the other ends. It’s why I’m a sucker for the ghost stories of MR James and Susan Hill. It’s why Neil Gaiman is the writer I most look forward to reading. It’s why discovering The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly has been one of my highlights of the year so far. It’s why I wrote a book as deliberately ambiguous and strange as The Ice Garden.

Of course, some of this is just personal preference. I can ‘do’ gritty realism. I enjoy gritty realism! But I don’t enjoy it as much as something that has a little flavour of the other, or what Robert Aickman called his ‘strange stories’. But, also, I think there’s something more to it than that.

ice gardenWriting fiction is an act of imagination. But reading fiction is too. A series of marks on a page translate inside the reader’s head into something completely different; something replete with meaning and emotion that stimulates every sense. (If you don’t believe me then read Stephen King’s description of Stan Uris’s first encounter with IT. You can feel the atmosphere he evokes.) And nowhere is the imaginative leap required of a reader greater than when they’re plunged into an entirely different world.

Put simply, I believe these strange stories build the muscle of imagination. And the importance of that at a young age can’t be overstated. Not many jobs require you to invent a fictional history for the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, but there are very few that don’t require some kind lateral thinking or problem solving. Some kind of imagination, you see. And it’s not only key in a practical sense – I believe all this also only adds to the richness of a child’s inner life.

I understand it’s not for everyone. Some like stories set in the here and now, that deal with the world as it is. Some people hate Tolkein! And if your tastes run that way then I appreciate why. But remember… just because a book is set in another world, doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

With thanks to Guy Jones. THE ICE GARDEN by Guy Jones out now in paperback (£6.99, Chicken House). Read MinervaReads review of The Ice Garden here, and purchase a copy here. You can follow Guy Jones on twitter @GuyJones80 and find out more at www.chickenhousebooks.com

The Ice Garden by Guy Jones

ice gardenHasn’t everyone at some point imagined that they could escape into another world? Whether it be into Narnia through the wardrobe, or cutting a hole in the air with a Subtle Knife, or even discovering a new place within our own world that holds such a different atmosphere, such an exciting contrasting place with our own reality (perhaps through a doorway into a Secret Garden), that new possibilities arise.

Guy Jones provides this opportunity for his protagonist, Jess. A girl who needs new possibilities more than most. Jess is allergic to the sun. She lives a confined life, in the rooms of her own house, or behind the tinted windows of her car, and also within the sterile walls of the local hospital. So when she moves through the trees at night and discovers an ice garden beyond the local playground, in which her skin never burns, she feels as if a whole new world of adventures is opening for her.

But someone else has left footprints in the snow, and a garden made of ice has its own fragilities.

This is a slight novel in terms of pages, but a novel brimming with a richness in words, plot and character. Enticingly written, in that the words are both lyrical and yet gripping, the reader is swept along with Jess, feeling for her in her contemporary world in which going outside means donning ‘Full Hat’ to avoid exposure, and yet also breathless with excitement for her when she enters the Ice Garden, and just as enchanted with all it contains.

Jones has a magical way of describing the real world. Jess’s relationship with her mother feels authentic and heart-breaking, as her mother and Jess are consistently torn between wanting freedom for Jess and a lack of constriction, and yet a protectiveness – Jess of her own skin, and her mother of her own child.

Yet Jones also manages to conjure a quite incredible fantasy landscape too – letting loose his imagination with new creatures, but also playing with features of this garden to make them into a playground for Jess (something she has so wanted). There’s a maze, a groove that acts as a slide, and endless ice features, as well as elements of fear and danger. He also gives a nod to other ‘portal’ adventures, expressing Jess’s disappointment that time in the real world doesn’t stand still while she’s in this ‘otherworld’ but continues as normal. What the ice garden does do though, is make her see her ‘normal’ world as quite remarkable.

This is mainly due to the friend she makes within the ice garden – another asset the garden gives Jess which she had most desired. And it’s the friendship that opens up her eyes to the meaning of loneliness and solitude, which allows her to fully explore the meaning of her illness, the saving capabilities of storytelling, and the tenderness that can exist between people.

The other theme that runs through the book is that of nomenclature. When Jess encounters new things within the ice garden, she gives them names, hence attaching her own emotional significance to them, giving the unknown an indication of the characteristic she sees it possesses – and therefore how she should interact with it.

“But in the ice garden nothing had a name until she gave it one. ‘Elephant Mouse,’ she said. ‘I hereby name your species the Elephant Mouse.’ The animal gave a little squeak, as if agreeing, and Jess giggled with excitement.”

Jess’s naming of the species gives her delight and when she encounters it again later, she refers to it as her own elephant mouse. This ownership and tendency towards colonialism fades as Jess realises that there is another within the garden, and also makes her think – to whom does the garden belong – for gardens are made, they are not freeform landscapes.

When, in the end, Jess’s two worlds collide, she comes to discover that she can make friends in her own world – in fact she already has – and that she can live without her illness defining her.

Jones writes with a sophisticated tenderness, and a confidence in his story that satisfies the reader and leads to deeper thought. An accomplished book that should live long after the ice melts. You can buy it here.

Animals, Hotels and Crazy Antics

Once they reach an age of reading for themselves, it’s quite delightful to see young readers pick up a series – they can devour book after book, knowing what’s coming next, but also developing an affinity with the characters, and feeling secure in the familiarity. I know that some of the most popular series in the library for these newly independent readers are Claude by Alex T Smith, Isadora Moon by Harriet Muncaster and of course, Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon. But if your little ones have READ ALL THE BOOKS IN THE LIBRARY, as one said to me recently, then you might like to try these new books:

nothing to see here hotelThe Nothing To See Here Hotel by Steven Butler and Steven Lenton
One of the wackiest, zaniest and most inventive books of the new year is this fun, silly, and outrageously colourful adventure from the author of Dennis the Menace books. The Nothing To See Here Hotel sits on the Brighton sea front, but it is enchanted and therefore invisible to the human eye (except for when a seagull flies into one of the invisible towers). Our narrator, busting with the same enthusiasm and energy of the author, is Frankie, one thirty-sixth troll, who lives in a world of magical creatures, and is descended from a long line of trolls, harpies, witches and puddle-nymphs.

Told in a chatty, conversational style, this is an exuberant romp through a day in the life of the hotel, which is owned by Frankie’s parents. A goblin messenger arrives in quite a whirlwind, announcing the imminent arrival of the goblin prince. The hotel is excited, until they see the prince’s mammoth entourage (which reminded me of the entourage song in Disney’s Aladdin), and the stuck-up prince himself, who is hiding a little secret.

The book moves fast – the characters are constantly in action, and Butler piles on the craziness, scene after scene. There is much unexpected plot, as it veers off in different directions, endlessly daft, weird and fun.

Like Phil Earle with his Storey Street series, and Tom Fletcher in The Creakers, Butler weaves himself into the novel by playing with the role of author – exploring elements of story and congratulating the reader on reaching certain points. This is never patronising, but an extension of the fun and games Butler is clearly having with the text. He also invents new vocabulary, along the likes of Dahl, weaving in words such as ranciderous and squivelling. Each addition is exciting, fun and fits the story well.

Hotels are also great fodder for literature – endless rooms, misfit characters, people away from home, and Butler makes full use of his imaginative Brighton resort. The final copy will be highly illustrated by Steven Lenton, but I received a very early review copy without illustrations. You can buy it here.

bee boy
Bee Boy: Clash of the Killer Queens by Tony De Saulles
Another cracking start to a series is this cartoon-based book about a new kind of superhero, a bee-boy. Melvin, by way of a touch of magical surrealism, falls into a bee’s hive that he’s tending, and is nominated protectorate from all anti-bee things by the bees.

It may sound a little strange, but works brilliantly, as De Saulles, illustrator of the Horrible Science series, meshes together ideas of bullying and survival, in Melvin’s experience of school, and the bees’ experience of human and natural dangers.

The parallel might seem extreme, but as Melvin battles with the horrific Norman Crudwell at school, so his bees battle against a myriad of menaces, from killer wasps to hawkmoths. Of course, De Saulles pulls in much ‘bee education’ in this fiction tale, but he manages to keep providing great sting and wit at the same time.

The reader will feel for Melvin as he overcomes his obstacles, but pathos is particularly evoked in the illustrations – Melvin has oversize glasses and sticking-out-teeth but manages to be presented as fairly adorable too. In fact, with the popularity of awkward cartoon-like heroes such as Tom Gates and Wimpy Kid, Bee Boy enters the fray as another contender for most gawky, and will win fans and readers. The book is simply full of illustrations, which gives a fabulous clue to each and every character. Most importantly, check out those endpapers. De Saulles has gone to town with his miniature depictions of Melvin’s classmates – imbuing each with an identity and personality. Lashings of fun, and a wonderful little crush on school friend Priti make this a buzzing read. You can buy it here.

night zoo keeper
Night Zoo Keeper: The Giraffes of Whispering Wood by Joshua Davidson, Giles Clare and Buzz Burman
Will is taking part in a school project to paint a mural at the local zoo, but gets admonished for his creative use of colour. When he returns at night, he opens a portal into the land of the Night Zoo, where animals talk, and danger lurks.

He makes friends with a giraffe called Sam, who explains that not only is Will the Night Zookeeper, but that he must keep the animals safe from the Voids – scarily destructive robotic spiders.

This is a short, fantasy adventure story, with stunning black and white illustrations throughout, but it is also a jumping off point for children and teachers to explore an accompanying website, called NightZooKeeper.com with the idea to stimulate creative writing.

A mix of animals, action, robots and a helping hand from a girl called Riya, the book ends on a cliff-hanger leading into the next story, publishing in August. It’s not ground-breaking storytelling, but my little testers liked it well enough. You can buy it here.

dave pigeon
Lastly, and by no means least, is what happens when a series for newly independent readers takes off (no pun intended). Dave Pigeon (Racer!) by Swapna Haddow, illustrated by Sheena Dempsey is the third title in the successful series about a couple of pigeons who talk their way through their adventures and demonstrate oodles of personality and pigeon wit. In this particular episode, Dave Pigeon is recovering at the vets, having had a prosthetic wing fixed, when he’s challenged to a race by a pirate bird. Playing on the idea of racing pigeons, and with allusions and jokes galore for adults as well as children, this is a sniggertastic read. With language puns, sparkling wit in both text and illustration, your newly independent reader couldn’t ask for more. Unless they want a fourth Dave Pigeon book? You can buy it here.

 

The Eye of the North by Sinead O’Hart

Eye of the NorthA timeless, icy, steampunk adventure, this is a really interesting and intriguing debut novel.

Arresting from the first sentence, O’Hart tells the story of Emmeline, a girl constantly on her guard, taking ‘always be prepared’ to the next level. So when she is kidnapped, and stolen away on a ship to the far north to be used as a bargaining chip to get her scientist parents to awaken a giant mysterious creature (the Kraken) buried deep beneath the ice, she must use her wits and her anxiety to whittle herself free.

The book is dense, and surprisingly gripping, and positively teems with ideas. Emmeline meets a stowaway on her first sea voyage, a nippy little figure named Thing, as well as an organisation trying to prevent the evil kidnapper from taking further control of the world – this organisation is named The Order of the White Flower (with headquarters in Paris). With tentative allusions to underground opposition groups in World War Two, such as The White Rose, the complexity of O’Hart’s plot begins to show itself here.

The reader learns that this underground organisation has many members who have been working against Dr Bauer (the kidnapper) for a long time, but little detail is given, although the group sound intriguing and each member fascinating; O’Hart keeps the reader completely in the dark (to the end). One member has built an intensely complex flying machine, which Thing endeavours to fly to rescue Emmeline. As with everything within this detailed and wondrous book, my issue is that the contraption sounds so terrific, so fantastical, that it is difficult to envisage in one’s mind’s eye. The same happens numerous times – with the denouement, in which Dr Bauer constructs an engineering contraption to extract the Kraken from beneath the ice, using mirrors  – the idea is so highfalutin, that it is difficult for the reader to picture.

As Emmeline moves through her adventure, so O’Hart throws more and more at the reader. We learn that the world has been submerged in much water (presumably the effects of global warming), and so Paris is much nearer the sea than it is in the real world. As with the characters of The Order of the White Flower, this idea isn’t completely developed though, which is a pity.

At every stage in the adventure, from Emmeline meeting an almost mythological horse, (which sounds as if inspired by the old Guinness advert in which the horses morph into waves – powerful like the gods), to Emmeline meeting the Northwitch, who splinters into ice shards and then re-forms with a spellbindingly cold evil chill, the inventiveness is powerful and spellbinding, and O’Hart smashes the imagery out of the park. The only issue is that the images are so extreme that the fantastical is hard to pin down in one’s imagination.

There are some wonderful touches – the tribal people living on the ice, with their sledges and their fear of outsiders, although again, this is underdeveloped as a concept, which is a shame.

The Eye of the North is a sensational story, but this book alone could probably have been developed into about three volumes – so that each part could be extrapolated more.

It touches on humans’ environmental impact on the world, scientific explorations and contraptions, evil beneath the ice, mythical horses, an evil ice queen, good versus evil organisations, greed and power, as well as anxiety and bravery.

It fits beautifully into the zeitgeist of the moment, with a wintry landscape, a future blighted by our environmental impact on the world, and a protagonist with parent scientists who have high stakes in the action. Blending a timelessness with technology and environment, and featuring children who perpetuate their scientist parents’ ideas by attempting to prevent harmful agents, but taking the best part of the science and seeing it through.

The two children are intensely likeable. They are feisty and free-thinkers. Emmeline’s character is strong at the beginning; she is determined, holds onto her comforts, remains quick-thinking and suspicious, but I wanted even more character development from her. Likewise with Thing, who has issues with his haunting past, yet has a strong determination to hold onto a person with whom he’s made a connection. Because their characters ring so true, the reader wants to stay with them.

This is a storming adventure story for the age group, ambitious and hugely entertaining, and there’s no denying this is a powerful book. I just think it could have been about three. You can buy it here.

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

Elphinstone’s stories whisk away the reader into a fantasy landscape with more than a hint of magic, where nature beguiles the reader and becomes more than a setting, nestling as a fundamental character inside the story.

Her first trilogy, The Dreamsnatcher, told of Moll and her quest against evil. Sky Song also pitches a fiery youngster against evil, but here, Elphinstone has woven elements of the current political and social climate into her book, and borrowed from time old fairy stories and folk tales to excavate a new kind of modern story.

Eska, held captive for her voice by the Ice Queen, breaks free from her musical box prison, but remembers nothing of herself or her past. When she learns her destiny: to journey to the Never Cliffs and sing the powerful song to win back the lands of Erkenwald from the Ice Queen, restoring them to the rightful tribes, she learns that she is also is in a race against time and the Ice Queen, who is desperate to steal back Eska’s voice. But once freed from the music box of the Winterfang Palace, Eska finds it hard to make friends and allies. The tribes are mistrustful of her. She must prove that she too wants to be rid of the Ice Queen forever, and that although she does not have a tribe of people around her, she has a different tribe, filled by creatures of nature, which may be just as powerful.

The power of the voice, (it will give the Ice Queen immortality), and the stealing of it, works powerfully in Elphinstone’s book. Of course there are the inevitable allusions to Philomela, whose tongue was cut out in Ovid’s Metamorphosis to prevent her from denouncing her male attacker, and who was eventually turned into a bird who sings. There are allusions to The Little Mermaid – another feisty young girl who sold her voice for humanity (or so she thought). The book revisits Telemachus’s proclamation to Penelope that ‘speech will be the business of men’ and challenges it wholeheartedly. For the power of a young woman’s voice is still relevant in 2018, a year in which this resonates more than most – being the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage. Following the power of Anne Frank’s voice, of Malala’s voice, of #metoo – the rise of the woman’s cry, even against another woman, speaks to the power of speaking up for yourself, for believing in what’s right and fighting for it.

The book is first and foremost an icy adventure, with a journey through shiveringly cold frightening landscapes, magicked by the sorcery of the Ice Queen, where avalanches tumble, and lakes hide monstrous depths. But it is also the story of friendship and bravery, as Eska and her friend Flint, along with his sister Blu, traverse mountains together and use teamwork to overcome adversity, and triumph against the Ice Queen.

Most of all, Elphinstone has shown the reader that belief is important. Belief in oneself and one’s own voice, but also in one’s own talents even if they are scorned by others (Flint is a master of invention – in this case using magic rather than pure science). Although there is no overt religion discussed here, as perhaps the reader saw in Northern Lights by Philip Pullman for example, there is an overarching belief in spirituality – that there is something greater to strive for than one’s own selfish desire. Elphinstone has divided the peoples of her book into tribes, Fur, Feather and Tusk, and initially the society is shown as having lost its belief system, because being cowed by one evil being (the Ice Queen) has made each tribe more inward-looking. Even more than that, The Ice Queen has caused ripples of fear, and so the tribes have turned not only inwards, but against each other, and harbour an intense fear of strangers and outsiders, lest they be spies or intruders.

By the end of the book the message is clearly that tribalism may not work, that strangers do not necessarily have evil intent, and by working together, evil can be overcome.

As well as the large messages within, this book showcases a writer coming into her own. The descriptions are lush and appealing – the flump of snow flopping from a branch, and crack and pop of the river melting – a feeling of Narnia-eque bursting into spring. The Ice Queen brings memories from The Snow Queen, and the fairy tale language of the voice-over prologue lends itself well to the feeling of timelessness and gives an all-encompassing setting to Erkenwald and its various tribes (although less confident readers may wish to get straight into the story of Eska).

There are numerous child-friendly touches within the story – the protagonists are children of course, but there are hideouts and dens lovingly described, and a constant flow of energy and vivacity sending their tendrils through the story. Eska’s oneness with nature is brilliantly evoked – she uses nature to feed and clothe herself – sewing with sinews, learning to hunt without her shadow giving her away. There is also the touching character of Blu, shown with a mild intellectual disability, but it is noticeable that the older children and adults are those least forgiving of this; Blu is easily accepted by Eska, Flint, and those with kind, open hearts.

This is a fantastic story of friendship, nature, overcoming adversity, but most of all acceptance and belonging. Always enthralling and daring, it speaks to our darkest fears and our intrinsic faults, and yet to an ongoing belief in the strength of humanity and empathy to pull us through. You can buy it here.

Prisoner of Ice and Snow by Ruth Lauren: Giveaway

Women may still be under-represented in the FTSE 100 companies, but the number of strong female characters in middle grade fiction continues to rise. Ruth Lauren not only populates her debut novel with a strong female protagonist, a female spy, and a female Head Prison Warden, but also creates a fantasy matriarchal society, in which a queen rules and the line of succession is through her daughter.

This is a pacey first-person text, which reads like a tightly plotted thriller, or a child’s Siberian version of Prison Break. The reader follows Valor in her quest to free her sister, who has been imprisoned for stealing an important royal music box (with diplomatic relevance). The book starts with an action-packed assassination sequence, through which Valor fakes her motive in order to be imprisoned too, and then starts to make plans to break out both herself and her sister.

The novel challenges traditional gender-tropes – Valor is a huntress by trade, taking after her mother – and also challenges traditional softness in children’s books. This may be an easy grammatical read for the 8-12-year-old market, but Lauren doesn’t hold back on the harshness of prison life. Most of the novel is set in prison, after seemingly no real justice system, and there is cruel and hard child labour and even crueller living conditions. Partly because the entire novel is set in a frozen landscape, with roaming wolves and biting cold – so the prisoners remain largely exposed to the cold, and the punishments, when they are doled out, utilise the landscape.

With the ice-cold landscape and the bond between sisters, the novel will bring to mind Frozen, but this is a much darker, grown up option, without an Olaf, and with, one imagines, fuller-waisted girls. The secondary characters remain largely thus, and there is not much time for thought and depth – the novel skates along the surface with all its intents and purposes focussed on escape. This makes it a page-turning read, and a delightful escape novel for the age group. Luckily for you, I have three copies to give away (UK and IRL only), so please find me on twitter @minervamoan to win one. If you’re not so lucky, you can buy your own copy here.

The Huntress by Sarah Driver

Bookshops and libraries don’t shelve children’s books by genre. They don’t want to limit children’s choice, or pigeon-hole them into reading only selective genres. I can see one child in the library who sticks firmly to the ‘boarding school’ genre, and another who adores ‘mysteries’, but where possible it’s good for children to look around, to sample all genres. As adults we tend to be more categorised. You may like ‘crime’, or ‘fantasy’ or ‘romance’.

I find that most books tend to stretch across more than one genre anyway – even if they’re sitting firmly within one space in a bookshop.

Sarah Driver’s The Huntress is a prime example of a book that straddles genre. Marketed as a fantasy, it definitely fits into the ‘adventure’ story box, as well as being distinctly unique, thanks to its quirky, evocative and inventive language.

Thirteen-year old Mouse lives aboard the ship The Huntress, which is captained by her one-eyed grandma, a captaincy Mouse is due to inherit according to the destiny bestowed upon her. She promised, upon her mother’s death in childbirth, to look after her younger brother Sparrow, who is both sickly and also imbued with strange powers. But when her father doesn’t return to the ship when they dock, and instead a stranger boards, Mouse must fight to ensure her destiny and family remain intact.

Driver’s world-building is immersive and dark – a time of deathly cold and swirling seas, in which  strange dinosaur-like creatures called terrodyls plague the skies, and beneath the depths of the sea lurk vicious gulpers and mystical merwraiths. People, named for the most part after animals, journey in tribes on sea, land or in the sky. Mouse’s tribe stays at sea and survive by bartering. Mouse, for example, searches for pearls under the sea, to trade on land.

Driver shows particular flair with her knowledge of ships (a topic mysterious to this landlubber reader), and this is enhanced by the wonderful map at the beginning, illustrated by Joe McLaren and Janene Spencer. This is the first of the trilogy, and it seems logical that the second two titles will dwell in the other landscapes, and complete Mouse’s quest – which is not concluded in this first book.

There is a murky and stormy atmosphere to the novel, which adds to the mystery of the mysticism that surrounds the tribes. The sea tribe worships the whales, who in turn steer the ship through the sea and respond to Sparrow’s haunting songs, but further religion/magic is merely hinted at rather than fully explained. Moon-gathering for example, with pet moonsprites.

But despite some unfamiliarities in the set-up, Driver adds in enough storytelling tropes to keep any reader happy – a mystery surrounding a missing father, a riddle to solve, a quest, a feisty female protagonist and questions surrounding loyalty, family, love and jealousy. There is good vs evil, and plenty of rumbustious action.

Mouse is an exasperating if loveable protagonist. She is in constant movement, never stops to plan or think through the consequences, but she shows enormous pluck and heart.

And it’s this heart, exemplified mainly by the language (for the novel is told in first person), that distinguishes this book and holds it above the crowd. The language is dense, yet highly readable. It contains many new compound words, which Driver has thrown together to exemplify the simple way of life of the tribes, and the expression of their thoughts and emotions. For example, Mouse travels while asleep in a ‘dream-dance’, she can ‘beast-chatter’ with animals, and gives ‘heart-thanks’ to people who help her. She is, above all, ‘heart-strong’. The language lends a lyricism and rhythm to the book, mimicking the rhythm of the waves. It reflects her abode, being the simplistic language of survival, whilst being poetic at the same time. And because the made-up terminology rings bells for the reader – merwraiths like mermaid, terrodyls like pterodactyls, land-lurkers for land-dwellers, it’s easy to translate.

The harshness of the landscape and the ferocity of the violence will thrill many, but it is not for the faint-hearted. Far beyond the ordinary realm of feisty pirates, this fantasy adventure bears out the adage that home is where the heart is – not always the physical place we think it is. Just like a book straddling genres – a book’s home can be in the heart, rather than just on the shelf. For age 10+ years. You can buy it here.

The Song From Somewhere Else by AF Harrold, illustrated by Levi Pinfold

This book came out in 2016 and rather slipped under the radar, but despite that, has continued to haunt me since I read it – in the same way that the song from somewhere else haunts our protagonist.

Frankie (Francesca) is out distributing leaflets to try to find her lost cat. But when she is hemmed in by bullies in the park, she is rescued by school outcast Nick Underbridge (the name is a carefully chosen clue to the later events in the story). Nick is ostracised in school, and smells slightly, but Frankie finds herself accompanying him home out of a sense of duty and thanks.

At his house, Frankie is drawn by a haunting and beautiful song, but she can’t locate where it comes from. She starts to spend more time with Nick, despite the worry that she too will be cast out at school because of the friends she keeps.

Gradually, the song exerts more and more influence and pull on her, and the story dovetails into part fairytale/part fantasy other world, as it becomes clear that the song originates from the dimension of another world – a kind of fairy tale world. With fairy tales comes danger and darkness, and Frankie’s friendship with Nick is tested to extreme limits when the two worlds collide.

The duality of the story is what makes it so special. The book is set in a time in which kids get on their bikes and ride to freedom, of lego and drawing, but also the internet and mobile phones, yet Harrold makes it feel sort of timeless. The effect of the everyday objects is to ground Frankie deeply in reality, within a contemporary story about friends and bullying, yet there are clear shadows of another world that seep into this – a fairy tale dimension that echoes the heightened emotions of our main story. There are both intensely dark and frightening emotions, and yet also visionary and pure and light overtones to this ‘magical’ dimension of the story. In this way, Harrold uses the duality of his fairy tale to mirror reality and his contemporary story – we all have the darkness and purity inside us.

Pinfold echoes this in his black and white illustrations – they are realistic in what they depict – the estate, a cat at night, Frankie on a bench, Nick’s Dad opening the front door. And yet, because of the shadows cast, the point of view from which the picture is drawn, the intensity of the pencil lines, and yes, more by what is hidden than what is shown – they are deeply dark and disturbing – mysterious and haunting. They feel slippery and ethereal.

The text too – telling a compelling story of friendship in a lyrical way – there is comedy and poetry mixed with darkness. Its evocative and ghostly. Each word is carefully chosen – it’s minimal, and pure.

But most of all, all this combines to make a text that is easy to read, and scattered with illustrations. In fact, the reader devours the book – identifying with the choices Frankie makes about friendship, and her conflicts within herself – especially when she is drawn to a song but can’t quite work out what it is or what it represents. It implies a feeling of loss and absence throughout, and leaves the reader with a sense of bittersweet sadness, as well as uplifting lightness.

This is a great book for deciphering and picking apart friendships – understanding not only who we choose to be friends with, but also how we demonstrate our loyalty to our friends, and how we come to understand them. It’s a shame that it hasn’t been picked up by award lists…this is a hidden gem – perhaps it needs to come out of its own shadows.

Suitable for 9+ years. You can buy it here.