Imagine a network of trains crisscrossing the galaxy, zooming passengers from one planet to another in the blink of an android’s eye, powered by an ancient, mysterious energy that lends the trains a whale-like life of their own: they sing as they pass through K-Gates (named after the Kwisatz Haderach in a nod to Frank Herbert’s Dune), thrilling at the joy of it all. This gorgeous idea is the basis for Philip Reeve’s sharply elegant thriller Railhead. Young Zen, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, is approached by the shady Raven, who asks him to impersonate a member of the Imperial Noon family (their head is known as the Fat Controller); a galactic conspiracy ensues, full of clones, emotional robots and monks made out of bugs. Reeve’s universe has the stylish sheen of Blade Runner, and is full of references to 20th-century poetry and music – one of the trains is called The Thought Fox. He also allows room for a sensitive, thoughtful discussion of humanity, and a (forgive me) whistle-stop, warp-driven plot that will leave readers of all types gasping for more.
Regular Literary Review readers will know of my passion for Libba Bray: The Diviners (2012) was a perfect supernatural thriller about Evie, a flapper with second sight. In the sequel, Lair of Dreams, Evie has become a radio star (her show is called The Sweetheart Seer) who swills cocktails and wisecracks like Dorothy Parker. ‘I don’t spook easy ... If I did, I wouldn’t live in Manhattan,’ says one of her friends, and boy is there a reason to spook, as a terrifying monster is sucking the life out of everyone via their dreams. The 1920s in New York come thrillingly alive, as Evie must (somewhat reluctantly, it has to be said) join forces with the other psychics in the city to put an end to the terror. Solid, satisfying and mightily involving, this novel also discusses issues of race, disability and sexuality with a light touch. Older teens should read it with a (virgin) martini to hand – it’ll help when things get too frightening.
Also lost in a bewildering, though unnamed, city is Frank, the anti-hero of Chris Priestley’s intelligent Anything That Isn’t This. Frank bristles against what he calls ‘The Grey’ – the insipidness that filters into everything in his world, which is bound by fear and bureaucracy. There is a beautifully judged Kafkaesque texture here, where the Ministry rules everything and its pointless tasks are Frank’s only employment prospect: after school, his first job entails ringing everyone in a telephone directory to check that their details are correct. When he finishes he must do it all again. He yearns for more, feeling at odds with the world. In a bookshop (the government has ordered that every book should have its last chapter pulled out, in order to disappoint anyone who might dare to read), he meets an official called Mr Vertex and becomes entangled in something that will cause him to question everything he knows still further. Priestley’s keen mind shines through, while the horrors of adolescent fumbling and self-discovery are skilfully and empathetically shown. There should be more teen fiction like this.
Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here () also deals with teenage angst, through its obsessive-compulsive narrator, Mikey, who views himself as the least important of his social group, which includes a gay American football player who’s one quarter God of Cats. This is a clever, enjoyable take on the high-school movie – one we’ve all seen, in which soul-eating ghosts, vampires or zombies attack and the school gets blown up. Ness’s approach is to tell the story of the ones watching on the sidelines. All the main action (which involves deadly Immortals coming to Earth via fissures in space) is summarised between chapters. Ness focuses on the more human issues of love, family – and how on earth to leave school without getting killed. Readers will love the smart, Buffy the Vampire Slayer-esque dialogue and whip-fast pace.
Teens are in trouble too in Jim Carrington’s Boy 23, which is a modern-day take on the classic German myth of the boy wandering in from the forest. Here, Kaspar Hauser is recast as Jesper Hauser, who wakes up one day in a wood. He’s only ever lived in one room, his meals brought to him; how on earth will he survive? He also happens to have the ability to heal himself (and is aghast when he realises that others can’t). Carrington deftly manouevres the reader through the thickets, and his oppressive New Dawn totalitarian state is worryingly plausible.
The third novel of Katherine Rundell, the wunderkind of children’s literature, has a more fable-like quality. She has chosen pre-Revolutionary Russia as the setting for The Wolf Wilder, her stirring tale of wolves and snow. Rundell has a gift for the arresting phrase – ‘Her expression was not exactly hostile, but nor was it plumping cushions and offering him hot drinks’ – while Feo, who rewilds the discarded pet wolves of the aristocracy, is an appealingly spiky heroine. The weak pull together against the strong; those of ten and above will also enjoy this book’s smoky, frosted atmosphere.
Set very much in the real world, Eva Rice’s Love Notes for Freddie is not strictly a young-adult novel, but its themes and characters will resonate strongly with adolescents and the young at heart everywhere. Set in Welwyn Garden City in 1969, it follows the adventures of Marnie, a maths prodigy who gets herself expelled from her boarding school for drinking. Rice’s customary lightness of touch, humour and warmth make this an enchanting read.
For younger readers, Polly Faber’s Mango & Bambang the Not-a-Pig has all the elements of a classic children’s tale: a girl with busy parents, an animal companion (in this case Bambang, who is an Asian tapir) and a child-hating villain (delighting in the name Cynthia Prickle-Posset). Its simple tale of the power of friendship will make parents and children enjoy reading it together. Clara Vulliamy’s brilliant illustrations give an ageless, sophisticated feel.
Another sprightly young girl can be found in Roland Chambers’s Nelly and the Quest for Captain Peabody, which follows Nelly, whose mother does nothing but knit all day, on her journey to find her father. Knitting her own sails, she sets off, undaunted by tornadoes and worse, to find him with his band of Gentlemen Explorers (brilliantly grumpy, rustling their newspapers at the edge of the world) on a newly formed volcano. Lively, imaginative and with striking illustrations by Ella Okstad, this will charm and tickle young readers with its dreamy silliness. And it features a postman who forgets that sometimes he turns into a pirate.
Finally, Gillian Cross’s new version of Homer’s The Iliad is told in a clear and simple fashion, with the epic’s power, tenderness and violence on full display. As an introduction to the stark Homeric world, it is perfect, and Neil Packer’s illustrations, which take their inspiration from classical vases, provide a thrilling gloss to the story itself. Perhaps it will give rise to a whole new generation of classicists.