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.