Category Archives: Fantasy

Imperial Spy

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.

The Mob

Clem Martini

Bloomsbury

0747575789

Jan 2006

The Mob is the story of a flock of crows that have gathered for their annual meeting. The multitude has come together for play, pairing off and the general hubbub of family reunions.
Clem Martini introduces us to the lore of the crow clans, a clash between strong-willed youngsters and more conservative elders as well as the Chooser, the slightly bedraggled elder selected to guide the flock.
Sadly The Mob ‘ the first part of a trilogy The Crow Chronicles ‘ isn’t one of the happiest meetings as a series of battles with a group of local cats cause chaos and social upheaval that threatens to divide the flock.
The review copy promises Watership Down with crows and it’s a tough comparison, particularly given that fluffy bunnies automatically attract more sympathy than cackling crows.
I finished this book two weeks ago and I’m still ambivalent about the whole experience. Parts of it irritated me intensely but there’s also some fine writing, particularly in the climactic tunnel scenes.
One sign that I wasn’t fully engaged is my annoyance at the fact that all the characters’ names start with a K ‘ all very nu metal and initially at least quite confusing. I don’t recall all the rabbits in Richard Adams’ story having names beginning with R.
I’m also unsure who it’s aimed at. The start of the book is very slow although there’s a burst of crow lurve and some nice touches about how a girl crow observes human behaviour, which might appeal to a female readership. At the same time the end of the book is more violent and action focused and reads as if it’s aimed at a male readership.
Ultimately I feel a potentially good idea hasn’t been served well by the way it’s been published. I recall Watership Down as a chunky read, with pretty small type, a single volume that recounts a series of episodes in the establishment of a new burrow.
According to Amazon there are 480 pages in the current Penguin edition of Watership Down while The Mob is just 236 pages with a fairly hefty typeface and generous leading. It recounts a single eposide in the life of the flock leaving you feeling short-changed by the current vogue for publishing franchises.
I don’t know how long parts two and three of the Crow Chronicles will be but had the whole tale been published as a two-parter or even a single volume then the early slow pace of The Mob might have worked well as the lead in to a more textured story.

The Chronicles of Faerie: The Hunter’s Moon

O. R. Melling

Amulet Books

1904442714

Oct 2005

American Gwen and her Irish cousin Findabhair (pronounced ‘finn-ah-veer’) are sixteen, soul-mates, on the threshold of womanhood but still innocent enough to half-believe that they might achieve their childhood goal of finding a doorway into the Faraway Country. It is not the fairies at the bottom of the garden whom they seek, but an altogether wilder and more dangerous breed. Ostensibly on a bus tour of Ireland (parents have to be pacified in order to be put out of the picture) but in fact prepared to be more reckless in search of their goal, the two are quickly involved in a wild game of hide and seek where one of them inhabits a different realm from the other.
What awaits them is passion, fear, loyalty and friendship in unlooked-for places. In short, all the elements of a fantasy adventure but shaken up and given a new, female-friendly slant. I would have gobbled this up as a teenager (and have to confess that I gobbled it up as an adult). It is the first in a series, so watch out for more. Highly enjoyable, with a tinge of the uncanny and a large injection of teen-sized romance.

The Navigator

Eoin McNamee

HarperCollins

0007209762

February 2006

The hero of this fantasy for older children/early teens is water-fearing, bullied loner Owen. Living in the shadow of his father’s apparent suicide, Owen keeps himself to himself, skives off school, and spends much free time in his den. As our story starts, on a bitter chill day, he is, as usual, out and about doing his own thing, visiting his own private places, when he encounters a tired, uniformed stranger. Moments later a strange phenomenon occurs: a dark flash in the sky, a moment of blackness across the land, and a feeling of change. The uniformed man seems to be the only other witness. It has begun, he tells the boy, grimly.
The ‘it’, we learn gradually, is a recurring battle between The Harsh, ghostly white creatures who wish to turn back time to total nothingness and the Resisters, a group of people who remain in suspended animation deep in the hillside until The Harsh make one of their attacks, and must then thwart them to save humanity. Already Owen’s familiar landscape, his house and neighbours, have disappeared, as time is sucked backwards. All that remains is the old building known as The Workhouse, which turns out to be the Resisters’ HQ, and, across the river, the mini-empire belonging to Johnston, the scrap merchant, the chief ally of The Harsh it transpires. Yet evidently Owen himself has not disappeared. Is this because he happened to be in one of the ‘islands in time’ when the Harsh started their time-sucking machine, or is it because he has some sort of role to play here, something connected with his dead father? As the first trenches are dug between the ancient enemies, the boy seems lost and helpless, just as he is in his own reality: but by the time (200 pages in) that the race to the icy north takes place, in order to turn off the offending machine (the ‘Puissance’ ‘ that’s ‘power’ to you and me), Owen has discovered inner resources and an intuitive understanding of what must be done that are quite inevitable.
Can you tell? I struggled with this one. The basic concept’s okay and there’s no doubt that there are some fine chunks of imagination here – although these tend to be reserved for the various gadgets that Owen encounters in this new world of Resisters and Harsh rather than for the often quite stock characters – yet the overall effect is much too patchy. One has the feeling that a good sneeze would blow the fabric of this imagined world quite away, that there isn’t enough cohesion and weight in what the author would have us believe. Many of the gadgets and setpieces seem glued together without rhyme nor reason. Why the bits of French that crop up from time to time? Why are the bad guys, Johnston’s men, portrayed as Italian-type gangsters that seemed to belong to Inkheart rather than to the icy Harsh? Why is the Puissance in the north and where exactly is that north supposed to be? (Half the characters get there by boat, half by land in a car with huge bicycle-type wheels). I was never quite sure if this was meant to be a serious fantasy ‘ la Garth Nix et al (to mix my languages) or more of a tongue-in-cheek romp.
It could be that this is a good book waiting to happen but released much too early, before the details and writing were properly worked out. Or it may be that it’s destined to be an absolute smash with a follow-up film and that I just can’t see it. It wouldn’t be the first time. Perhaps it will be right up there with Shadowmancer.
Every review, no matter where it appears, is just one person’s opinion.

Gregor and the Rats of Underland

Suzanne Collins

The Chicken House

1904442714

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!

Nickolai Of The North

Nickolai Of The North by Lucy Daniel Raby

Hodder Children’s Books

1904442714

Oct 2005


A refreshingly different take on how the myth of Father Christmas came to be. When Nickolai was just a baby, the wicked Queen Magda killed his mother and the rest of his elfin people. Taken in and raised by humans, Nickolai is teased at school for his abnormally large ears.
When everyone from his settlement starts to leave for the beautiful city of Doransk, Nickolai says goodbye to his human parents and follows. Little does he know that he, and everyone else, are walking into a trap. He soon discovers that he’s the only one who can resist the evil Magda’s plan to steal children’s youth to keep herself young and beautiful; and he is the only one who can stop her.
A nice festive treat for tens and above. The book’s major flaw is that it will obviously lose some of its magic at any other time of the year.

Under Fragile Stone

Ois’n McGann

O’Brien

1904442714

Oct 2005

Fantasy is a genre that divides. It’s a case love it or loath it ‘ so if you are in the latter category stop reading now, this comic tale of the shape-changing Myunan is not for you.
That’s not a reflection on the quality of the second volume in The Archisan Tales merely an acknowledgement of a status quo that even super-sellers like Terry Pratchett struggle to overcome.
It’s unfair because at its heart this is simply a good traditional adventure story: foolish kids put their parents in peril and have to team up with a wayward uncle to redeem the situation. Along the way they pick up new skills, make new friends and save each other and their companions from peril.
Set such a plot in a Peckham housing estate ‘ cue lots of gritty urban realism ‘ and it’d be taken as a tale for our times. Add in a few flying beasties and some giant cargo-carrying centipedes, however, and suddenly the critical acclaim slips away.
However, if you like fantasy then the combination of the intuitive Myunan children, battling first with business-like warlords of the Noran and then with the dunderhead Reisenick and their leader Ludditch is well worth picking up.
The central theme is obviously Gaia-esque: tampering with the spirit of the earth brings chaos. Only if the god of the mountain is reunited with his realm will normality return.
That said there’s a collection of wondrous creatures that London Zoo would cast an envious glance at, a set of rogues who veer towards the pantomime and two engaging central characters on a voyage of discovery that pre-teen and early teen readers will empathise with.
The Myunan’s great skill is their ability to meld and flex flesh and bone so that they can take on any form they like, enabling them to blend into walls, gain wings and fly. As the novel proceeds Taya and Lorkrin gradually develop their ability to take advantage of this extraordinary asset.
Although it’s the second volume in the series it reads simply as a familiar cast of characters getting together for a new adventure, you don’t really need to start with Volume 1.
It all leaves you marvelling at the invention of Ois’n McGann. If quietly amusing rather than laugh out loud sounds like damning with faint praise it’s not meant that way ‘ it’s because more often than not I fall into the fantasy-free reading group.

Seeker

William Nicholson

Egmont

1904442714

Oct 2005

Nicholson’s latest offering, the first instalment of a new trilogy, took a while to get under my skin. The sleek prose at least made for an easy read, but I didn’t start to really care about the characters, or their respective quests, until quite a way into the action. The three young protagonists from different backgrounds are introduced separately to the reader, before their paths cross and they discover a mutual ambition. Motivated by different circumstances, they all long to become a Noma – a type of revered, mystical warrior – but must first prove they are worthy. The ensuing adventure sees the brave but na’ve young adults have their individual beliefs and ideals challenged and sometimes crushed as they come up against the harsh realities of the outside world.
The setting is fantasy, but the modern day metaphors are somewhat transparent ‘ themes of suicide bombers, public execution, religious intolerance, blind faith and unjust social hierarchies are all explored. The balance of good and evil is more ambiguous however ‘ the separate communities are each convinced of the supremacy their own beliefs, and the reader is invited to judge for themselves. If you can get past a slowish start and avoid getting bogged down by these potential moral dilemmas, you will find yourself immersed in a cracking fantasy adventure with well-painted and ultimately likeable characters.

Mister Monday

Garth Nix ill. by Tim Stevens

Collins

1904442714

Jan 2004

‘He couldn’t believe he was in this situation. He was supposed to be some sort of hero, going up against Mister Monday, and here he was without any pants on, worrying about being bitten somewhere very unpleasant by Nithling Snakes. Surely no real hero would end up in this predicament.’
Arthur Penhaligon is a rather ordinary boy; much too ordinary to be any sort of hero. He has just moved to a new town and the first day at his new school is not going well. He has asthma, he can’t tell the ultra-cool kids from their opposites, and the PE teacher is making him go on a cross country run. When he collapses in front of everyone, surely things can’t get any worse?
Well actually, they can. As Arthur lies dying in the park, he finds himself in possession of a minute hand from a clock, and a peculiar notebook, thrust on him by Mister Monday who expects to retrieve them as soon as he dies. Unexpectedly he lives and becomes the target of sinister men in bowler hats while around him a plague erupts and threatens the population. Arthur is forced reluctantly into the role of hero as he enters the House and an alternative world. Here he is dependent on a scrap of Will which disguises itself as a frog, and an Ink-Filler Sixth Class called Suzy Turquoise Blue if he is to survive, find a cure for the plague and return to his own world and family.
Readers who are familiar with Nix’s Sabriel trilogy should not expect a re-run in this first part of The Keys to the Kingdom series. Unlike Sabriel and Lirael, Arthur comes from a world which is essentially our world. The fantasy world of Mister Monday is not the same as the Old Kingdom of Abhorsen. The good news is that if you did not enjoy Sabriel, it is still worth giving Mister Monday a go. On the other hand, if you loved Sabriel and are hoping for more of the same, you may initially feel disappointed. But ‘different’ is not the same as ‘bad’. There is a wry humour to the book, an active imagination and at its heart an uncertain, vulnerable hero who resoundingly proves himself up to his task. Well worth the read, and with the next two volumes in the series already published, if you get hooked you can move straight on to Grim Tuesday.

Barkbelly

Cat Weatherill

Puffin

1904442714

Oct 2005

Barkbelly is not like other boys: he was hatched from a wooden egg and he’s literally tough as teak. Brought up by humans in a village far from his kin, he flees his childhood home after an unfortunate accident ends in the death of a young boy.
He then embarks ‘ no pun intended ‘ on a series of adventures that bring him into contact with the circus, the urban jungle, pirates, slave traders and ultimately to Ashenpeake, the island home of his people.
Cat Weatherill’s tale of Barkbelly’s search for his roots addresses some fairly challenging themes: loss, betrayal and the true meaning of love. Ultimately, however, the action rolls on so fast that most will be swept along for the ride.
There’s a slight sense that Barkbelly is a series of fantastical vignettes populated with wild and wonderful characters rather than a coherent whole. However, the real issue if you’re using the book as a bedtime story may be persuading your kids to wait till tomorrow for the next instalment.