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The 13 Treasures

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Michelle Harrison
Simon and Schuster
978-1-84738-449-2
January 2009

"I can't cope with this," Tanya's mother declares at the start of this exceptional debut novel (winner of this year's Waterstone's Children's Book Award), and promptly dispatches her daughter off to stay with the grandmother, in a suitably expansive and derelict mansion.
It is Tanya's fixation with fairies that has driven her mother to the end of her tether.
And thus is set up a quintessentially English children's book adventure; child staying with grandmother in slightly spooky house has escapades involving little people.
Now, whilst I am happy to read the classics in this genre, I have to say that a contemporary title of this ilk normally finds me a somewhat resistant reader. But I quickly found myself a thoroughly willing participant in the tale concocted by Harrison - one of fairy glamour and entrapment going back two generations.
The house itself and its principal occupants - Tanya's grandmother, the groundsman Warwick and his son Fabian (nicely chosen names, these) - evoke just the correct atmosphere. And when the fairy intrusion occurs it happens with such unexpected malevolence as to be completely unnerving and, in the book's best sequences, as exciting as an episode of 24.
There are occasional lapses of pace (usually when Harrison is attempting to convey narrative information via dialogue) and, quite importantly really, the book's title is never given proper significance or weighting. Having said that, the sheer power of invention and fluency of story narration carry the reader along in a fashion that makes its winning of the Waterstone's Award entirely understandable.
Here we have a writer who you just know will go from strength to strength. There are superbly well-realised sequences - in the catacombs of the house, in the surrounding woods - which, in my own reader's mind I imagined as a TV dramatised adaptation, so visually vivid was the description.
The book has a Prologue and an Epilogue. Its chapters are of just the right length for children to read one (or more) in bed at night. Harrison herself decorates the initial letter of each new chapter, in a style suggesting she might also have contributed excellent narrative illustrations had the publisher been so inclined.


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

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J. K. Rowling
Bloomsbury
0747591059
Jul 2007

Critical comment surrounding �Harry Potter� has increasingly failed to distinguish between popularity and content. The brand has become testament to the technologies and communications that have rendered popular culture as globalised. Commentary has focused around a rigid mythology surrounding its creator and creation rather than pinioning itself to the books themselves.

In establishing the ground-plan and layout for the final book, previous titles have worked towards determining this as a cataclysmic wrangling between good � personified via Harry Potter � and evil � manifested through Voldemort in an epic battle that sends quakes of fear and impending danger through the whole of the wizard and non-wizard worlds alike.

With the exception of the opening of the novel, the impending doom, however, never feels to be significant, or indeed to exert itself on anyone other than a minor clique. Sentimentalism and sensation have removed the edge from this particular brand of danger.

Genetic inheritance and race underpin the whole of Voldemort�s philosophies and are structured as the backbone that affords Voldemort�s evil a level of intent and thereby of plausibility. Failure to engage with this and a reticence to draw deeply from oblique thematic reference to Hitler�s �Final Solution� make the concluding episode of the �Harry Potter� books flaccid shackling Voldemort to the position of a pantomime villain. As readers, we may �boo�, we may �hiss�, but there will be few that are chilled to the bones by result of the 'what if' as without root or foundation many of the blurrings between good and evil that Rowling has outlined are degraded

Magic is as much a convenience as it is an integral part of a plausible culture and community. Delineations between the magic and non-magic world are shifting with squibs, mudbloods (or the more euphemistic term �Muggle-borns� � although this itself appears a derisory reference towards those lacking potential and ability, more so than non-wizards at least). Distinctions are rarely explained and so cohesion to the fundamental premise of this fantasy world is eroded.

Characterisation and development through the series is highly limited, restricted to a series of gropes and fumbles � abhorrent stereotyping of adolescence - that allegedly symbolise the ascent towards physical and mental maturation.

If the paucity of �Pottermania� is indeed, truly a gauge of our reading culture, nationally, perhaps we should all be concerned that one series should, alone, have attained such breadth of focus in a country that annually publishes upwards of 10,500 books and that the 'magic' of the literary inheritance for the inhabitants of this sceptred isle is a world - like that of Hogwarts - unattainable for so many...



Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools

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Philip Caveney
Bodley Head
0370329155
Jan 2007
�Strangers can be blamed for certain things. Since there is nobody who knows them and can vouch for them, people are often willing to believe the very worst about them � if you catch my drift�?�

Drawing on facets of the fantasy, mystery, comedy, action and adventure genres, Philip Caveney�s great skill in his debut children�s novel �Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools� is bringing together the familiar and the fresh for readers of all tastes, backgrounds and indeed ages.

Son of a jester, Sebastian Darke endeavours to appropriate his father�s occupation and together with his trust buffalope, Max, sets out to seek his fortune. That this aim seems ill-fated is evidenced by Darke�s inability to imbue comedic value to even the most simple of jokes.

Together with the pint-sized Cornelius, Sebastian and Max aid the Princess Karin, thereby becoming ensnared in a web of intrigue and cunning subterfuge. Only through their assistance will Princess Karin be able to ascend to her rightful position as heir to the throne of Keladon, however Brigands abound as obstacles towards this.

�Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools� is a gripping quest novel that transports readers on a voyage across wide vistas of imaginative lands. Teasing out the elegance and grandeur of epics and energising these with fast-paced modern humour, the novel feels at once wholesome and wicked of wit...




Setting of A Cruel Sun

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Alan Gibbons
Orion
1842551795
September 06

Hmm. Had this one for over three weeks and I�ve just finished. (Sorry Michael) My wife suggested that this initial sentence would suffice, but on we go.

Chapter One. Forces of light and of darkness. Mention of a �Nine� of heroes and heroines. A dark lord, a Black Tower (no, not the Liebfraumilch), a demon battle host. Any of that sound at all familiar?

Don�t get me wrong, I�m not at all anti-fantasy. I read and re-read The Lord of the Rings many times as a child. I consider Garth Nix to be �the business�: Ursula LeGuin even better. There is some tremendous stuff out there in this genre, but (to misquote Groucho Marx) Setting of a Cruel Sun just isn�t it.

Funnily enough, despite some of those early clich�s, lack of imagination isn�t the root of the problem in this book. There are a complex host of different peoples and even species imagined against a backdrop scented with our own Middle East. Roughly speaking they are grouped into the Hotec-Ra, the tyrants who have ruled the land with an iron hand (not a wooden foot or a piece of string�. Cf The Goon Show circa �59?), the Helati rebel slaves, who wish for a new era of equality and justice, and the fearsome Darkwing, a once-human, now life-hating demon lord. So, all the heroes have to do is defeat the overlords in a great battle and thwart the Darkwing�s scheme to destroy the life-giving sun and everyone can settle down to a bit of serious sunbathing with maybe a cocktail or three. Piece of cake, and (although the usual good-versus evil-for-the-fate-of-mankind fare) an okay fantasy plot.

The problem comes first that this is a sequel that really feels like one for at least fifty pages, if not more. The story opens at the end of another great battle, with the Nine just recovering from a previous victory, and feels like a strange mixture of a formal history being unfurled and glimpses of a large number of individuals with too many pasts and characteristics to possibly cram into the text. Result: a real hard slog for several chapters.

But even when I had worked out who everyone was and what their aims were, I still struggled. I think this is partly due to that uncomfortable mix mentioned above (great history versus personal events) a mix that Tolkien manages well in a much longer work that grew over decades of imagining and re-imagining but just feels rushed, messy and formulaic here. Add to this a correspondingly strange narrative style that sometimes has characters directly analysing their own motives and actions against the wider backdrop in a most unconvincing way - �What do I feel?� asks one particular traitorous villain, �Yes, I am jealous� There is comradeship among the enemy, whereas we Children of Ra cheat and deceive... I am without friends or confidants. In my loneliness, I envy my foe.� � and quite often brutally spells things out rather than letting us draw our own conclusions or allowing tension to mount: �The decision would have grave consequences. Before nightfall the next day, it would bring the swords of the Sol-ket down on his village.�

I kept asking myself during my reading if I was being too harsh, but the reality is that I failed to engage emotionally with any of the characters, I was rarely surprised by the plot and, by the end, I felt as if I was simply filling in the numbers in a hellishly large but low-level Sudoku puzzle.

As ever, just one person�s opinion. You might love it.



Tanglewreck

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Tanglewreck by Jeanette Winterson
Bloomsbury
0747580642
July 2006
The return of Doctor Who to our TV screens in 2005 gave rise once again to the vast possibilities of using time-travel as the central premise of a storyline. Jumping on the time-travel bandwagon, Jeanette Winterson has seized upon its potential with a spirited originality in her first children�s novel, a gripping and provocative fantasy-thriller.

The central character, Silver, is an orphan forced to live with her selfish aunt Mrs Rockabye and her ferocious pet rabbits. Silver�s only comfort is the magical, sprawling house in which they live. When the mysterious Abel Darkwater arrives at Tanglewreck, seeking the legendary Timekeeper, Silver is dragged away from her beloved home and drawn into a sinister plot which sees her thrown through time and space, with the future of the universe on her shoulders.

To give much more away would risk spoiling others� delight in unravelling this juicy adventure story for themselves. Packed with colourful characters, and skillfully paced, Tanglewreck also throws up some weighty questions about the nature of existence. Rarely does one encounter a children�s novel which so succesfully combines pure entertainment with serious philosophical and scientific contemplation. A hugely satisfying and memorable read.


RS


The Coming of Dragons

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A. J. Lake
Bloomsbury
1904442714
Oct 2005
Edmund is the privileged son of a king, travelling cautiously in disguise. Elspeth is the fierce daughter of a shipmaster, working proudly at her father�s helm. Their paths are thrown together when they are the only survivors of a terrible shipwreck.

All they want is to return home. But they learn that an evil warlord plans to destroy their homeland, and discover that they each possess mysterious powers significant in the fight against him. And so, aided by a learned old man and accompanied by an enigmatic minstrel, the children are forced to comply with destiny.

Edmund and Elspeth narrate alternate chapters, creating a read which should appeal equally to both boys and girls.

A. J. Lake�s historical knowledge of the Dark Ages means that the ancient British setting is well realised; perceptive details woven subtly and consistently throughout the tale give us a satisfying feel of the texture of their daily lives.

Though �the dragons are coming� we don�t encounter many throughout the story (we get just a brief glimpse of the one who caused the shipwreck at the beginning of the book). The conclusion foretells more dragon action in the next book, as well a quest to defeat a malevolent god.

Which means that fantasy fanatics who enjoy this story should be left eager to read the next in The Darkest Age series.




The Fledging of Az Gabrielson

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Jay Amory
Gollancz
1904442714
Aug 2006
Az Gabrielson is a living paradox; a wingless boy born into a winged world. He struggles to live with dignity in a hallowed, �Airborne� society that treats his winglessness as an embarrassing infirmity. Az feels an understandable affinity with the prehistoric Groundlings, who were also wingless and inhabited the dismal and abandoned earth. When the mysterious infrastructure that supports the sky-cities starts to malfunction, Az finds himself the ideal candidate to investigate what really lies beneath the clouds�

This is the first book in �The Clouded World� Series.

This book is being explicitly marketed at fans of the fabulous Philips (Reeve and Pullman) and it does indeed touch upon some of the themes explored in their books. As in the �Mortal Engines� series, Armory presents a re-imagined, scavenged world that has diverged dramatically from our own (technology is the catalyst in Mortal Engines, while here it the branching of human evolution) resulting in a deeply divided society and an incipient �class� war between its highest and lowest tiers. Armory also alludes to the abuse of religious dogma, a theme that is explored so dazzlingly in �His Dark Materials�. However, I think that The Fledging of Az Gabrielson does have an appeal of its own; the story taps straight into that atavistic human desire to fly and there are some intriguing, ambiguous characters (I loved Mr Mordadson) who are often beautifully named (Ramona Orifielsdaughter Enochson!). It will be interesting to see how Amory takes this story forward and whether he chooses to distance himself from the inevitable comparisons.



The Tide Knot

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Helen Dunmore
Harper Collins
0007204892
May 2006
The ancient Greeks used to believe that the world was composed of four elements, earth, water, fire and air.

For Sapphy the battle is two-way rather than four, will the earth part of her nature ever manage to control the water elements that long to take her to sea? In Helen Dunmore�s second novel set in the world of Ingo, Sapphy continues the battle that her father lost in the first volume of the series.

With her father gone, her mother has found a new partner and moved the family from the cottage by the cove to the nearby but less hospitable St Pirans.

While her brother Conor is willing to give the new lifestyle a go, Sapphy is less willing. Her reluctance is not helped by the fact that her �friends� in Ingo continue to call her to the Cornish sea.

However, they are not entirely benevolent spirits, danger lurks every time she goes to sea, from sharks and the risk that she become too comfortable in the water. The watery voices are at best ambivalent about the fate of the humans who inhabit the shoreline.

Among the watery beasts are those who would wish the sea to destroy the settlements of man and destruction of the Tide Knot � the complex formation that ensures the tides fall as well as rise � leads to disaster.

St Pirans is flooded and the pair are called upon to go to sea to help resolve the situation as Ingo dwellers realise that the demise of the tides is not all good news.

The Tide Knot is an engaging standalone read but it would benefit a little from having read the first volume as the back story to some of the relationships � notably that between Conor and Elvira � would be useful.

That�s a minor point, however, as the character of the land and its relationship with the sea are at the heart of a lyrical and enchanting book.



Clair-de-Lune

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Cassandra Golds
Orchard Books
1904442714
Oct 2005
A young balletomane, Clair-de-Lune, lives alone with her austere grandmother, Madame Nuit. Her mother (La Lune) died whilst dancing a dying swan ballet, and she has been mute ever since. Such overtly symbolic names emulate the methods of fairy tale, which sets the mood for this story.

The setting has an historical atmosphere (think Paris, 150 years ago). Clair-de-Lune lives in a very tall, very old building populated by artistes. It also hides a talking mouse, Bonaventure, who dreams of starting his own ballet school, and a magical secret doorway to a monastery by the sea. Here Clair-de-Lune meets Brother Inchmahome, who through sensitive listening and a series of probing questions, helps her to unlock her heart and her voice.

The "Ah, Reader!" style of narration and slight frou-frou factor (silk gloves, a King Charles spaniel called Chouchou, �the exquisiteness of a troupe of mice, dancing.�) will estrange a significant proportion of readers. Describing Clair-de-Lune�s lace collared dress, Golds notes: �It was� not perhaps to everyone�s taste�. The same could be said of the book. Those who love ballet will adore hearing about the agonies and ecstasies of �The Dance�. But the emphasis on lady-like behaviour and genteel manners will not appeal to girls who like climbing trees or, I suspect, boys.

Bonaventure�s lengthy monologues (all his conversations with Clair-de-Lune are one-sided, after all) create a somewhat verbose read in places. And I couldn�t help thinking that the romantic tale of a talking mouse had been done before (in Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux). Golds asserts that �no one, to Bonaventure�s knowledge, had ever before�taught classical ballet to mice.� Which of course put me in mind of Angelina Ballerina. The fascinating minutiae of mouse life (such as toothpick barres and toffee wrapper writing paper) have also been celebrated elsewhere, in Jill Barklem�s Brambly Hedge books. However, these familiar elements are fetchingly sewn together.

Golds� narrative thread is straightforward � the singular problem is Clair-de-Lune�s frustrated desire to talk. But as the story progresses an emotional depth unfolds. Characters who I had feared to be one dimensional reveal themselves to be credibly complex. Through them the powerful effects of loss and of love are perceptively explored. An allegorical message, that love is the most important thing in life, lifts the story to a philosophical plane. Some will read this as a moving exposition of sadness and solitude, laced with poetic metaphor, which is reminiscent of The Little Prince in its profundity. Some will find it all a bit too frilly.



Imperial Spy

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Mark Robson
Simon and Schuster
1904442714
February 2006
An enjoyable blending of spy and fantasy genres, Imperial Spy follows the fortunes of Femke, an exceptionally gifted young spy who attempts to negotiate the intricate web of plotting and counter-plotting that threatens the Shandese Empire after an ill-advised incursion into a peaceful neighbouring kingdom. Imperial Spy makes entertaining reading for fans of derring-do; it is packed with precisely rendered descriptions of surveillance techniques, military tactics, armed and hand-to-hand combat and the politics of conflict. Interestingly, the existence of magic in Femke�s world is referred to repeatedly, but not shown (unless you count the rather neat alchemical �sting� that features at the end of the book) and the same could be said of the obscure fate of Femke�s mentor Lord Ferrand. Therefore, plenty of loose ends and intrigues to carry over into the sequel Imperial Assassin, due to published in November 2006.