Piers Torday shot into the limelight, deservedly so, for his first novel, The Last Wild, which started a trilogy that followed a young boy called Kester in his quest to save the last surviving animals on earth. It was an astounding book (and trilogy); Kester is in my top ten all-time children’s book characters.
There May be a Castle also follows the quest of a young boy, but it is a completely different journey from that of Kester’s.
Mouse, a fairly small eleven year old, is travelling with his mother and two sisters to his grandparents’ house on Christmas Eve. But the snow is falling fast, and visibility is bad, and the car goes off the road and crashes.
When Mouse wakes up he’s in a strange world, with a talking horse who resembles his toy, and an accompanying sheep named Bar. He knows that he has to find his way to the castle, if there is a castle, but he’s not sure why, or what will happen if he finds it.
Torday’s book is a paean to our amazing mind and to ceaseless imagination. Although on the surface this is a simple adventure story, appealing to children with its array of colourful and fantastical characters, from duelling knights out of Mouse’s computer games, to a somewhat sarcastic talking horse, a typically irritating singing minstrel and a brilliantly drawn size-changing dinosaur (reminiscent of Toy Story’s life-imbued toys), there are strong underlying themes, and an emotional poignancy and tension that’s more than gripping.
Even before the crash, Mouse’s character is all about his mind. He’s a thinker, a worrier even. His size may be small, but his imagination is huge – Torday plays up this juxtaposition on purpose – Mouse’s imagination is bigger than he is – Mouse is much more than his physical body. Moreover, Torday is saying that our minds are more powerful than we realise.
Mouse’s stamina – he is on a quest to seek help really – is propelled by the power of his imagination. He harnesses strength by projecting his real journey onto an imaginative quest. This is mirrored by his older sister, Violet. In the middle of Mouse’s imaginative landscape, the reader is drawn back to Violet – in intervening chapters – as she describes waking and seeing her mother and sister in the car, and using her physical prowess to detach herself from the seatbelt to attempt to keep her family physically safe (using the car heater, food, warm clothes). However, she too, uses imaginative play as power – she pretends to be a fierce historical lady pirate – a hero she has learnt about in school – and this make-believe gives her fortitude.
From the beginning of the book, Torday drops clues as to what’s going to happen – the snow carpets the land, “just another block of white in a land of white”, so that once the car crashes, the reader knows that the rescue teams won’t find the car easily. It is up to the two children, Violet and Mouse, to get help. This frightening scenario (all too real in today’s automobile society) is brave territory for a children’s writer. It will resonate with those readers who are drilled into road-crossing, seatbelt-wearing safety, and is truly a tale for our time.
But Torday makes it contemporary in other ways too – Mouse complains that his grandparents don’t have Sky or broadband. He and his siblings are transfixed by the ‘glowing screen’. At one point it almost seems as if authorial intrusion is making a point about modern technology:
“A spellbinding black mirror that floated in your hands and which, with one swipe, revealed to you the whole world. Pictures from underneath the ocean, videos of the planets from outer space. Every film ever made, every song ever recorded, every game ever designed, every book ever written. He could almost see Mr Stanmore’s point. Who needed to make anything up, when it was all here in your hands, just waiting for you?”
The children are part of a generation who navigate the world with technology. Mouse and Violet refer to TV, the ipad, Instagram, the sat nav, apps, both for their entertainment and their way of life, but it is no surprise that Torday’s message is that for all of modern technology’s strengths, this story is about the power of nature – the snow that overturns the car – the power of the basic human elements of survival – seeking warmth, shelter, and food. These basics trump the technology that fails Mouse and Violet in the end – the Ipad smashes, the mobile phone has no signal, the car heater only lasts a short while.
This book hits on many levels. It speaks to children in that it is a simple adventure story and it speaks to children, who like Mouse, don’t enjoy reading. Mouse prefers animation – the swipe of an Ipad to the stasis of a book, but then his daydreaming (his creative inner voice) takes over, and it is more real than any app. It’s the land a reader goes to in their head.
But even more striking is that for much of the book our protagonist doesn’t seem to be in control, despite the adventures coming out of his imagination, formed from experiences in his game-playing world. Which makes the reader question whether our imaginations are controllable. To what extent do we control our own dreams, our own subconscious?
This is daring territory for a children’s book. What’s more daring is its ending (which I won’t spoil) and its meditation on life and death. What is left behind when a person dies, where does the imagination go then?
Children will appreciate the good writing here, the quest within the narrative, and the white-knuckle tension of surviving a car crash and being rescued. But as with all good books there is much more to explore, there is much more to think about – because imagination will take you everywhere.
“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” GK Chesterton
You can buy a copy of the book here. For age 10+ years.
Please note this review was written after reading a proof copy of There May be a Castle and quotes may not be wholly reflective of the finished book.