Solveig has one violet eye and a father who has gone to Miklagard (Byzantium) to join the emperor’s personal bodyguard, the Varangians. He’s left her behind with her angry stepmother and an ivory brooch of immense value that shows a man and a girl tossed on the waves of an ocean. Solveig (nicknamed ‘Sola’, meaning ‘sun-strong’), decides to follow her father, despite the fact that she lives on the western side of Norway and has never sailed a boat in her life. So begins a journey in Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Bracelet of Bones that is complex, dark and evocative. Solveig’s honesty and strength shine through prose as bright and clear and, yes, strong as the rays of the sun. This skilful tale, made of ‘dream and water’, will haunt older children who love things historical and mystical.
A heroine cut from the same cloth, though living many thousands of years into the future, is the super-intellectual Fever Crumb, who, in Philip Reeve’s Scrivener’s Moon, has to deal with problems that affect her entire civilisation. It’s pretty tough for a teenager. Her mother, a gorgeous genetic mutant called Wavey Godshawk, is in search of the knowledge of the Ancients, contained in a black pyramid located far to the north. With the help of a travelling circus and some mammoths, they set off. There are some surprises for Fever – she watches her mother die in a particularly nasty fashion, and develops romantic feelings for a mammoth-girl (who also happens to have Fever’s grandfather’s memories implanted in her skull, but that’s another matter). There are many wry references to our own age: ‘blogging hell!’ says one of the characters, which I suspect may be a comment on the amount of Internet puffery authors are expected to do these days. Reeve’s qualities as a storyteller, both warm and thrilling, and as a mapper of the adolescent mind, are on show here, and this will make any adventure-minded ten-year-old happy.
Fever’s skills would be a match for Jennifer Strange’s in The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde. She runs a Wizard’s Agency in the Kingdom of Hereford; the only trouble is, things aren’t what they used to be: ‘Once a wizard would have the ear of a king; today we rewire houses and unblock drains.’ The house they live in is a wonderful creation: there’s a Transient Moose that peacefully appears and disappears; visual echoes (instead of audible ones, so that after you’ve moved, a ghost version of you will do it again); and several rooms that are dangerous to enter. When news of the last dragon’s approaching death arrives (transmitted via one of the ‘pre-cogs’, naturally), Jennifer finds it’s her duty to make sure that it happens. There are some sharp comments on our culture: as soon as Jennifer becomes the ‘Dragonslayer’, she’s offered lucrative endorsement contracts. This is a lively, witty and entertaining tale for older children who still like making silly faces.
Kate Saunders’s Magicalamity is set in the same sort of aslant universe. Tom wakes up one day to find all as usual, except that his dad is actually a fairy and is wanted for murder in the fairy realm. This realm is a horrible parody of our own world, ruled by the evil Falconers: ‘My father kills anyone who brings him bad news,’ says one of them. ‘You can’t even tell him when it’s raining.’ One of Tom’s fairy godmothers is a mechanic; the other two are, at least initially, monstrously indifferent creatures who prefer to enslave humans. Tom negotiates the bizarre extremes of the fairy dimension with charm and aplomb. Everyone’s fate eventually rests on a dragon’s taste for rock music. Saunders’s book will suit those too young for Fforde’s, who will love its style and zaniness.
Also dealing with a realm parallel to ours is Ben Gribbin’s Thomas, Silent. A boy left on a beach (another Tom) finds that he has a special connection with the sea. When a strange man called Phillimore turns up, Thomas is led through the ocean deep into a world where everything has gone wrong and the leader’s maniacal thirst for power threatens to destroy everything. The plot is as old as the sea itself; but there are some moments of genuine beauty and lyricism: ‘It was as though he’d killed the sea. As though the tower had drunk the moonlight.’
Back on terra firma, Eva Ibbotson’s last novel before her death, One Dog and His Boy, is an almost perfect children’s book. Hal lives in a house that is rich in material comfort but low on life; all he wants is a dog, but his father is too busy flying round the world (he’s head of ‘International Power Ltd’) and his mother only cares about shopping and carpets. When Hal’s dad decides to rent a dog for the day, Hal’s love for it becomes so overwhelming that he is prepared to run away (the rent-a-dog shop is a treat: there’s a Pekinese still waiting ‘for someone who would look into his fiery soul’). The resulting escape is deeply moving, and a wise study of friendship and love imbued with simple passion and humour.
Animals also provide comfort and a route to friendship in Gill Lewis’s sharply poetic Sky Hawk, when Callum is told of an osprey living on his father’s farmland by a ‘nutter’ called Iona. A sweet relationship blooms between the two as they first rescue the osprey from death, then watch it teach its chick to fly. Lewis’s prose is precise and thoughtful, and in Callum she has created a touching, intelligent hero whose passion for conservation is as believable as his conflicting adolescent emotions. When tragedy strikes it seems that all has been lost, but Lewis shows beautifully how there is always hope in sadness. The osprey leads Callum to new worlds, new dreams, and new relationships, as the humans’ lives begin to mimic and reflect those of the wild birds soaring above them.
When tragedy strikes in Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, it strikes long and hard. This is an extraordinary book, and I don’t use the word unadvisedly. It stems from an idea by Siobhan Dowd, whose untimely death from cancer in 2007 deprived us of an unusual, original talent in the children’s book world. In the novel, Conor’s mother is also dying from cancer; the way that he deals with it is to call up a monster. Ness’s sentences contain an onslaught of emotional heft. The monster is a creature from folklore, older than the earth, and its lessons are as tricky to understand and carry out as any fairytale message. Like all the books in this round-up, A Monster Calls shows a fragile creature battling with forces that emanate from without and within. Ness describes this battle with a savage articulacy that paradoxically renders Conor’s inarticulacy incandescent. This is a painful tale, but one that resounds. The illustrations, by Jim Kay, are dark and prickly: the perfect accompaniment to Conor’s troubled mind.