Author Archives: mai

The Poacher’s Son

Rachel Anderson

Barn Owl Books


Sept 2006

Growing up in the early years of the twentieth century, Arthur witnesses the disintegration of his family as a series of unfortunate incidents forces them from marginal respectability towards abject poverty.
Thankfully, the hand-to-mouth living described in The Poacher’s Son will be utterly remote from most modern readers’ personal experience. Arthur becomes increasingly alienated by the rigid social and moral structures of the time, failing at school (his sister thrives there, but her prospects are absolutely defined and limited by her background). Instead, he is utterly absorbed by the natural world; it is this solitude that allows Arthur to become completely himself. It is a shock when the narrative lurches into the First World War and towards its bleak conclusion. Anderson allows Arthur as the narrator to seem much more eloquent than the younger self he describes; this imbues him with dignity, but it also has a distancing effect on the reader. A subtle, sombre book.

Girl, Missing

Sophie McKenzie

Simon and Schuster


Oct 2006

Fourteen year old Lauren is struggling to make an identity for herself, made more difficult by the knowledge that she was adopted as a small child. She soon becomes obsessed with learning more about the circumstances of her adoption and sets out to find her biological parents. Increasingly alienated from her adoptive family, hazy memories and hard evidence begin to emerge, suggesting that she may have been abducted from an American family and illegally adopted. Lauren is willing to risk everything to learn the truth.
Girl, Missing works best when read as a thriller/ suspense novel. It has an intriguing and unusual premise that was inspired by a real-life missing child case. However, I think that it also taps into one of the enduring archetypes of children’s literature, of the perilous quest that reveals secret identities and a hidden heritage/parentage. A stronger sense of place would have added another dimension to this story; more could have been made of Lauren’s journey from England to New England in search of her family. Lauren is not a particularly sympathetic character, but is probably more plausible because of this (some of the plot devices I found less plausible!). However, the descriptions of Lauren’s instinctive kindness towards her little sister were genuinely touching, and left me wanting more insight into her emotional development.

The Fledging of Az Gabrielson

Jay Amory



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.

Imperial Spy

Mark Robson

Simon and Schuster


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.

A Darkling Plain

Philip Reeve



Mar 2006

The fourth and final book in the Mortal Engines series. Six months after the seismic events described in Infernal Devices, Tom and his daughter Wren are working the Bird Roads in their beloved airship, the Jenny Haniver. While Wren thrives, Tom secretly struggles with his weakened heart and his unresolved feelings for his wife Hester, who, in a supreme act of self-destruction, deserted her family and surrendered herself to the stalker Shrike. However, Tom gains a renewed sense of purpose when a serendipitous (or so it seems) series of events lead him full circle, back to the ruins of London. Meanwhile, the uneasy truce between the Traction Cities and the Green Storm proves dangerously vulnerable to exploitation.
I absolutely loved this book, having already relished the earlier titles in the series. Reeve’s exceptional fondness for his characters frees them to behave in complicated, inconsistent and often misguided ways, and the relationships between the characters are similarly complex (Hester and Shrike being the most poignant example). This is writing of much greater emotional subtlety and empathy than is suggested by the muscular ‘steampunk’ setting. A Darkling Plain is not as unreservedly fast-paced as the earlier books; despite the dreadful thrill of the escalating hostilities between the Traction Cities and the Green Storm, the narrative is interspersed with strange little episodes of introspection, as the Stalker Fang explores her inimical dual personalities, and Tom contemplates his rapidly failing health. Moreover, the conclusion of the book is simply astonishing and alters the reader’s sense of everything that has gone before, through an extraordinary shift of perspective. I could go on’

Spy Mice: The Black Paw

Heather Vogel Frederick



Jan 2006

While trying to escape from the school bullies who habitually torment him, Oz stumbles upon the existence of the Spy Mice Agency, hidden from human eyes beneath the International Spy Museum in Washington. The Spy Mice are waging a dangerous war of intelligence against the villainous rat community. In their mutual desperation, an unlikely friendship is forged between Oz and Glory, a particularly brave and resourceful spy mouse.
The Black Paw is the first book in the Spy Mice series. This a very light read; the characters are affectionately drawn and the story is entertaining and well paced. It will appeal to younger fans of the ‘Spy Kids’ movies and similar. However, it’s all a little bit too cute for my tastes. It reminded me of Michael Hoeye’s stylish Hermux Tantamoq series, where the fastidious portrayal of the mouse characters similarly veers between whimsicality and tweeness.

Gregor and the Rats of Underland

Suzanne Collins

The Chicken House


Jan 2006

Eleven-year-old Gregor has had to grow up fast since the inexplicable disappearance of his father. He develops a strong and protective relationship with his baby sister Boots, so when she crawls into the laundry chute of their apartment building, he doesn’t think twice about following her. They fall into the Underland, a world hidden below New York City. It is populated by descendents of the Pilgrim Fathers, co-existing with intelligent (and gigantic) bats, cockroaches, spiders and rats (with wildly varying degrees of cordiality). A series of remarkable and dangerous encounters with the Underlanders forces Gregor to reluctantly accept his role in the fulfilment of ‘The Prophecy of Grey’, which tells of a quest that will help determine the future of the Underland. Gregor witnesses acts of supreme self-sacrifice and utter betrayal, while some surprising alliances are formed.
Despite being the first book in a five-part series, Gregor and the Rats of Underland is sufficiently well written and structured to make a satisfying stand-alone read. Suzanne Collins uses classic elements of the ‘quest’ narrative (e.g. the prophecy, the drawing of lines of allegiance, temptation and betrayal) with enough originality and complexity to satisfy most readers. The relationship between Gregor and Boots is sweetly portrayed but manages to avoid being overly sentimental. I particularly enjoyed the archaic speech patterns of the Underlanders and was quite charmed by the noble and self-effacing characters of the cockroaches Tick and Temp!

Fly By Night

Frances Hardinge



Oct 2005

Fly By Night is set in an imagined world (both similar to and different from eighteenth century England) and turns upon the fate of twelve-year old Mosca, the incorrigible goose Saracen and unscrupulous, highfaluting Eponymous Clent. For various reasons they are each reviled and so, seeking to escape their straitened circumstances, they become mired in the dangerous political plotting that afflicts the Fractured Realm.
On some levels, it’s very tempting to compare this book to Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy and to view headstrong, courageous Mosca as a literary ‘daughter of Lyra’. However, far from being an imitator, Frances Hardinge has the confidence and skill to tell her story in a voice that is delightfully idiosyncratic, witty and humane. You cannot fail to appreciate the sheer relish with which Hardinge uses language, conveying how dangerous, seductive and wonderful words (and books) can be. There is also a strong sense of genuine affection in her depiction of humankind in all its weirdness and whimsicality. Characters that are variously terrifying, ridiculous, magnificent and pitiable are all described with equal care and conviction.
A very impressive debut!