Marcus Sedgwick’s Dark Peak is set in a swelteringly hot summer in the 1970s. At its centre is a school visit to Lud’s Church, a chasm in a rock formation where one of the rocks resembles a giant face. Two children, Stephen and Stephanie, clamber in with all the rest of their peers, but then don’t emerge again. Everybody acts strangely, as if a spell has been cast. Some even start to forget that Stephen ever existed.
Sedgwick is fascinated by language and folklore, and particularly philology. His hero, Porter, discovers the layers behind words and how they structure reality while also delving into Middle English and the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. When Stephanie returns, deeply traumatised, Porter embarks on a quest to find Stephen and makes some unlikely friends along the way, including a man who’s devoted his life to understanding the mysteries of Lud’s Church. Reading this wonderful piece of children’s literature on a sunny autumn day, I experienced a genuine thrill of menace.
Ross Montgomery’s The Chime Seekers draws on the legend of Childe Roland, in which Roland’s sister, Burd Ellen, is snatched away to Elfland. Yanni has an annoying little sister, the newborn Ari. Feeling frustrated and unloved, he wishes she would go away. And of course she does, whisked off by a terrifying elf lord who has come down the chimney, one of whose names is the Pale Stranger.
Yanni has to perform three tasks to win her back before time runs out and Ari becomes a fairy for eternity. The other world is a distorted version of ours, brimming with marvels and dangers. Montgomery is an assured, deft writer, using the architecture of the legend to create something both thrilling and funny, while also paying homage to role-playing games. The Chime Seekers will be a treat for reading by the fire.
Also deeply imprinted with the lore of fairyland is Catherine Fisher’s new short-story collection, The Red Gloves and Other Stories, which deals with the uncertainties of childhood and the line between human and animal. In ‘The Silver Road’, two stepbrothers find themselves dreaming nightly of a silver road stretching onwards; come off the road and you’ll never return to reality. Fisher shows us the growing friendship between the stepbrothers and suggests that although the troubles and traumas of adulthood are ahead, they will be better understood than those of childhood. In ‘The Hare’, an ancient buried witch returns in the form of a white hare to retrieve something stolen from her burial mound; a young boy must stop her before she gets him, leading to an almost unbearably tense confrontation. Wishes, curses and ghosts make this a spellbinding collection.
Philip Reeve’s Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep sees a baby washed up onto the shores of the island of Wildsea and adopted by Andrewe Dark, who bestows on her the name Utterly. We are in an alternate 19th century, beyond the Scilly Isles, in a place where magic abounds and where Andrewe’s task is to watch the seas every night in case the terrifying monster known as the Gorm reappears.
One day, Andrewe drowns. Utterly has to take over his post and deal with her uncle Will (who has been living it up in London as a student and doesn’t believe in all this magical nonsense). Meanwhile, the sea has its own ideas. Tales of lost, shipwrecked children are as old as those of the sea themselves, and Reeve’s story has the weft and warp of myth. Soon we are hurled into a rich, strange adventure and we remember Ariel’s song in The Tempest: ‘Full fathom five thy father lies…’ This is a slow-burning, darkly involving read.
Also set in an alternative past is Lucy Strange’s Sisters of the Lost Marsh, in which Willa, one of six sisters living with their useless, drunken father, embarks on a journey to find her eldest sister, who has fled an arranged marriage. There is a prophecy that states that unless this marriage takes place, the youngest will bury the father. Strange’s prose is beautifully textured, bringing to life the snicker of Willa’s horse, the gloominess of the marshes, the glitter and glamour of a travelling fair and the passions and troubles of the sisters. This is a fast-paced and involving novel that questions superstition and reminds us that family is often our strongest bond.
Mirabelle, the heroine of Pádraig Kenny’s The Shadows of Rookhaven, is, like Utterly, a pleasingly active heroine who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Kenny almost seems to be inventing a new genre. His is a historical gothic horror story with heart (it’s set some time after the Second World War). Mirabelle is what humans would call a monster, dwelling in a house called Rookhaven with her family, who are all, also, monsters; and yet, more often than not, it’s the humans whose behaviour is most monstrous.
In this novel, young Billy Catchpole is sent clandestinely into Rookhaven by a rich industrialist to steal something important. Mirabelle and her family have to fetch it back. The plot is not the most important thing; instead, it’s the gloriously weird atmosphere, the pleasingly bizarre characters (like Odd, who can create portals to other worlds at will, and Piglet, who can enter people’s minds) and the pervading sense of decency, insight and love. A triumph.
Finally, Aisling Fowler’s debut, Fireborn, is a rollicking adventure with a sparky female heroine known as Twelve: she’s had to forgo her real name in order to train as a Hunter. These Hunters go after magical creatures, but when their lodge is breached by goblins, one of their own is stolen and Twelve gallops away to retrieve her. Full of magic, friendship and surprises, this pleasing novel romps along to a breathless conclusion, with terrifying talking trees, naughty fire sprites and a great stone dog providing incident and delight along the way.