The death of Eva Ibbotson in 2010 was a great loss to the world of children’s books. Her posthumous novel, The Abominables, stands head and shoulders above the pack. In this sweetly charming tale, a British aristocrat is kidnapped by a yeti – except the yetis prove to be not at all abominable, and only took Lady Agatha so that she could help bring up their babies. In fact, the yetis spend most of their time apologising to plants before they eat them and weeping so much that their body hair (which one of them plaits) gets terribly wet. Ibbotson’s writing is delightful, and her gentle themes of self-reliance, respect for nature, and kindness are beautifully wrought into a moving and funny quest narrative of innocents abroad. What is most attractive is Ibbotson’s essential belief in the goodness of humanity, even if there will always be the odd bad apple. She will be sorely missed. Oh, and you know why yetis can’t be tracked? Their feet are on backwards.
The innocent abroad can also be found in Frances Hardinge’s A Face Like Glass. It is the story of an orphan girl thrown into the fantastically complex world of Caverna, an underground city where master craftsmen make bad-tempered cheeses and wines have personalities. Hardinge’s setting is a riot of Trimalchian banquets and Gormenghastian ritual, and her theme is that of purity and honesty winning out against the deceit and scheming that the inhabitants of Caverna navigate as part of their daily lives. All the while, they live in terror of the Grand Steward, who only ever lets one side of his brain sleep at any given time (leading to a serious case of schizophrenia). The book is rich and dizzying, and while Hardinge is perhaps better at using our world – as in her brilliant Verdigris Deep – than at creating her own, this is a novel for young teens to marvel at and savour.
Conrad Mason’s The Demon’s Watch is similarly imbued with hints of Terry Pratchett. A group of watchmen keep the peace at Port Fayt, where all kinds of the usual fantasy creatures live in (relative) harmony. Alas, the near-fanatical League of Light wishes to destroy all non-humans, and it’s up to our half-goblin hero, Grub, to save the day. Mason’s writing is lively and engaging, and his message of tolerance is a potent one.
Occupying the same mental space is Will Gallows and the Thunder Dragon’s Roar by Derek Keilty, which sees another half-breed – this time a half-elf, half-sky-cowboy – zooming about on his flying horse and saving his land from devious ranchers. He can talk to animals and is training to be a mage, but he isn’t too happy about his name, ‘Two Hats’. This is a zippy, inventive tale about learning to love who you are.
Philip Reeve’s new book, Goblins, plays dexterously with some old fantasy tropes: the dark tower, the kidnapped princess, the hidden king and the young adventurer, in this case the son of a cheesemonger. ‘The world would get on very nicely without battles and quests, but where would it be without cheese?’ says his father. Reeve’s interest in stories and storytelling is apparent here, and while his interpretation may be modern, his moral is as old as the folktales he so joyfully upturns: don’t be greedy, kids. There’s also a terrifying encounter with a monster made out of cheese.
Roistering and sweaty, full of magic and mischief, is Black Arts by Prentice and Weil. It’s the story of Jack, a hero akin to Hardinge’s orphan, who negotiates his way around Elizabethan London before he joins up with a group of thieves. The authors’ use of contemporary slang is brilliant: ‘A rivelled Margery-prater’s got more chance of plucking a rose in Her Emjay’s ruff-peck than you’ve of parlaying with Mr S!’, says one of the bandits. Jack accidentally ingests a mysterious powder that allows him to see another layer of reality; he must use his new abilities – and his weird demon familiar, Imp – to protect London against the Puritans. Jack is an intriguing hero, morally ambiguous and quick, and London comes to boisterous life – quite literally, as spirits who live in the stones begin to manifest themselves. You can also have fun spotting the John Donne quotes.
Set some centuries before Black Arts, Sally Nicholls’s All Fall Down concerns itself with the devastating effects of the Black Death on a village in Yorkshire. Nobody is safe; everybody looks out for themselves. The heroine is a strong-willed, obstinate girl whose recalcitrance often makes her company unpleasant; but as a whole, this is an intelligent, finely honed narration about family, friendship and loss.
Back in the real world, This is Not Forgiveness is something of a departure for Celia Rees, whose last book, The Fool’s Girl, retold the story of Viola from Twelfth Night. This one is firmly rooted in modern England, as a young soldier returns from Afghanistan to the girl whose virginity he took when she was fourteen. Told from varying perspectives, it’s an unflinching portrayal of teenage life, describing a melée of drinking, vomiting and rutting. It’s also a tale of love requited (but in the wrong way), and a plot loaded with contemporary, incendiary resonance. Slick and compelling, This is Not Forgiveness leaves a fiery afterburn in the mind.
More relaxed is Gill Lewis’s White Dolphin. Her first novel, Sky Hawk, told of conservation in a poetic, careful manner. This one follows the same arc: an endangered animal, in this case the titular albino cetacean, runs into trouble and must be rescued by two mismatched children. Lewis’s writing is elegant; the white dolphin is a symbol of loss, yet also promises hope and, ultimately, a better world.