We may be worried about the increasing automation of our jobs (I’m surely only a year or so away from being replaced as the Literary Review children’s book critic by a robot), but we’re facing nothing quite as frightening as the remorseless aliens that invade Earth in M T Anderson’s scaldingly satirical teen novel Landscape with Invisible Hand. Known as the ‘vuvv’, the galactic colonists resemble ‘granite coffee tables: squat, wide and rocky’. They arrive proffering access to an ‘Interspecies Co-Prosperity Alliance’ and promising an end to work and disease. Naturally, there’s a hell of a catch, and Earth is immediately mired in poverty and crime. Oh, and they were lying about the end to disease. Humans eke out despairing lives while vuvv industry devastates the ecosystem. There is no escape; the only option is to get work in the floating vuvv cities, leading some even to shave off all their hair and practise scuttling on their backs, palms down (you try it), to fit in with the colonists.
Packed into this short book are sideswipes at reality television, as the vuvv start to watch programmes featuring ‘real’ humans in love, at fashion – rich kids dress to look as if they are ‘about to carelessly jet off to another solar system, tra-la-la’ – and at art, with the aliens promising a way out of poverty via an art competition, though it turns out that what they admire is sentimental trash. Adam, the adolescent narrator, appears in a reality TV show with his girlfriend, Chloe. Its captions, in the vuvv language, are priceless: ‘Ocean Memories: Humans Adam and Chloe are going to the beach now! They are in true love. They have playful splashing. The water is too cold for organism Adam and he squeals like a piggy, says loving Chloe!’
Anderson is rooting here for plucky, individual human endeavour against wicked corporate greed with pizzazz, glittering originality and fiery intelligence, but there are no easy answers and the end is satisfyingly ambiguous.
Illness has always provided opportunities for fantasy in children’s fiction. Guy Jones’s wry, sharp debut, The Ice Garden, uses the stock figure of the sickly child to unusual effect. Imaginative, brave and sensitive, Jess longs to play outside, but a rare condition means she burns deeply at the lightest touch of the sun. Creeping out of the house at night in an attempt to experience real life, she encounters an enchanted garden where everything, glittering and cold, is made of ice. Is it real or the projection of her troubled and starved mind – or even of someone else’s? Jess’s plight, tenderness and resilience will charm and move readers aged ten and older as reality and desire collide in unexpected ways.
From enclosed spaces to a world of possibilities: Vashti Hardy’s debut, Brightstorm, is a steampunkish, galloping yarn for children of ten and up, featuring families of explorers whose activities earn them honour, glory and social standing in an alternative London. The Brightstorms are arrivistes. When the father is accused of breaking the Explorers’ code, his children – one of whom has a working metal arm – set out to clear his name. Hardy has a laser-like sense of what appeals to her readership and this tale has all the elements you could wish for in rollicking style: horrible guardians, wicked relatives, airships, mountain passes, brave pilots, wolves and ‘sapient’ animals. It is no criticism to say that Hardy has drunk from the same cup as Philip Reeve and Philip Pullman. This is a skilful, gripping and hugely enjoyable account of the bonds that keep families together despite the most awful adversities.
Peadar O’Guilin’s previous book, The Call, is a startling young-adult work in which Ireland, enveloped by a mysterious fog, has to deal with the ravages of the Sídhe and their habit of stealing children at any moment and hunting them, often to violent death, in the Grey Land. The heroine, Nessa, is a polio survivor whose courage in the teeth of despair is enthralling. The sequel, The Invasion, picks up where we left off, except that Nessa, far from being feted, is now suspected of being a traitor. The monstrously inventive Sídhe, who are able to transform humans into anything they wish, have now unleashed horrors upon Ireland itself, turning the country into something resembling a Hieronymus Bosch painting, only with machine guns. There are some truly disturbing creatures, including a giant constructed from the living bodies of humans, and there is barely a let-up in the grimness. Even the human characters tend to be mired in horror, in particular an old female professor with a keenness for killing. Fans of the first book will relish the gruesome wit, though I do warn you that some may find the pace and slaughter a little unrelenting.
Finally, a brace of books for younger children proves that there is still room for uncomplicated joy in the increasingly penumbral world of children’s fiction. Alexander McCall Smith’s Hari and His Electric Feet sees young Hari discovering that he has a special talent: when he dances, everyone must dance with him. The text, lively and sweet, swings along with an infectious beat, while its themes of acceptance and reconciliation will resonate deeply with early readers. Sam Usher’s illustrations add to the general sense of jaunty movement.
If you have a child of two and up, then I can wholeheartedly recommend Polly Dunbar’s A Lion is a Lion, in which a brother and sister deal with a leonine house guest who appears, looking suave and charming, and insinuates himself into their lives. This delightful book both plays with a child’s perspective, questioning accepted rituals and customs, and demonstrates that even the smallest person can have power over what frightens them. Toddlers will roar (sorry) with glee.