Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest poses a startling conundrum. When young Steve’s new baby brother is born with a congenital illness, ‘angels’ visit Steve, promising that they will ‘replace’ his sibling with one who is disease free but otherwise genetically identical. Oppel’s writing is supremely tense, vivid and full of charged images. Steve at first wonders if his dreams are ‘somehow welded to the real world’. As he slowly realises what’s really going on, the claustrophobia of the story plays out, reaching a dark, thrilling climax. Not since Alan Garner’s Elidor have dream and reality been so successfully married. The result is a challenging, weird parable that offers a stark warning about the dangers of genetic engineering and is full of spikes, stings and surprises. Yet in the end, this excellent take on the changeling narrative achieves a kind of grace.
Grace of a different kind, this time physical, is a major theme in Caroline Lawrence’s Queen of the Silver Arrow. Lawrence has created a lovely and wise account of the short, violent life of Virgil’s warrior maiden Camilla, who appears fleetingly in the Aeneid. For Virgil geeks like me there is plenty to enjoy: minor characters are fleshed out and incidents that in the original pass by in a line or two emerge with a new kind of poignancy. I had always worried about Silvia’s pet stag, the cause of the war between the Trojans and the Latins when a young Trojan shoots him; Lawrence notes that it takes the whole night for the deer to die.
Camilla’s father was a tyrant, thrown out by his people, yet the Latins must accept her as their defender. Lawrence has great fun with this, capturing how the warrior maiden, unused to the city, is terrified by urban ways. There’s much, too, on fellowship, youth and bravery. Queen of the Silver Arrow is a fine, gripping work for teenagers on the subject of lives cut short by conflict.
Julia Gray’s promising debut, The Otherlife, also deals with Norse mythology. Here, Odin et alia enter the everyday world – in particular, that of London tutors. It’s a world I know intimately, having been a classics tutor for well over a decade. Gray shows how much pressure is put upon the young, whose parents often seem to live apart, swanning from pilates class to private view while their children tattoo themselves and quietly break down.
The Otherlife contains many grand and gripping moments. The strongest parts of the book involve Ben, from whose viewpoint the story is partly told: his parents are separated, he’s on a scholarship and he’s failing his exams. At the heart of the book is a mystery involving his kindly tutor, whom he once shared with his friend Hobie. The discovery of Hobie’s diaries prompts an investigation. While I wasn’t entirely convinced by the diaries (Hobie is a sports-loving brute with some overly mature turns of phrase), there is a rich seam of excitement here. And who doesn’t love the idea that, just out of our reach, the gods enact and re-enact their timeless battles, the sun endlessly pursued by a wolf?
The gods are a much more constant presence in Lucy Coats’s substantial Chosen, which goes back to the time when Egypt’s most famous queen, Cleopatra, was a teenage girl at odds with her sisters. Coats delights in sensual detail, creating an absorbing and accessible landscape full of smelly camels, dust, fur, date palms, crocodiles, bandits and a living sphinx. Cleo, as she is known, has been chosen for a special task by Isis, who occasionally speaks through her and gives her supernatural powers. At the same time, she must contend with her growing desire for her companion, Khai, and the fact that her sister Berenice wants her dead. Full of humour and warmth, this book will suit teenage girls who love ancient history – and introduce those who don’t to a fascinating period.
When people reach a certain level of celebrity, it usually occurs to them to write a children’s book: how easy it must be, they think. Publishers love the name; the celebrity writes the book; everyone wins. Or do they? Often the books are hurried or unoriginal; readers drawn by the name find something not worth their while. So we come to Lucy Worsley, whose turn it is. Her debut children’s novel, Eliza Rose, is set during the reign of Henry VIII. Somewhat surprisingly, she eschews historical authenticity in both dialogue and narrative: ‘Your mother would have been so proud of you,’ Lord Camperdowne says to his daughter, our heroine. Eliza Rose must make a powerful alliance in order to save her crumbling estate, but she is in fact in love with a bastard page boy. Her cousin Katherine Howard (yes, that one) becomes the king’s mistress and suddenly everyone’s lives are at risk. There is a good sense here of both intrigue and the insanely boring life of a courtier: Eliza Rose has little to do except stand around, and yet every move and every meeting is fraught with danger. Despite being linked to the story of Howard’s demise, the book as a whole has a certain flatness. Nevertheless, teenage girls will find in it an ominous warning about the restrictions that were once placed on the lives of young women.
Also constricted by virtue of being female is Lady Helen, an earl’s daughter in Regency England who happens to have the ability to destroy demons. The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman is a book that teenagers will find completely absorbing. Helen’s quasi-psychic powers allow her to see beyond outward appearances: ‘keen intelligence in Lady Trevayne’s black footman, the swift rise of lust in a visiting vicar, and even a look of soul love between two men’. With a disgraced, possibly treacherous mother, and a fortune of £40,000, she cuts quite a figure at Queen Charlotte’s court – only, she also has to learn the secrets of the Dark Days Club, set up by Henry Fielding, no less, to combat the forces of evil. Ultimately, it’s a reboot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – a young girl chosen against her will must go to the prom and save the world – but an enjoyably successful one at that.
Among recent books for younger children, Sylvia Bishop’s Erica’s Elephant stands out. It begins with ten-year-old Erica finding an elephant on her doorstep, sent by her errant uncle Jeff to keep her company. The only problem is, Erica has been on her own for two years and only has £30.42 left. Both delighting in classic devices – the surprising villain and the surprising ally – and quietly subverting them (whether the ending is ‘happy’ or not is a question that children will love to think about), this is a sweet, funny and heartfelt story that everyone will enjoy.
From pachyderms to palfreys, of a sort. Louie Lets Loose! by Rachel Hamilton tells the story of Louie, who leaves his comfortable home to go to stage school in New York. Sounds familiar? Well, not so much – as Louie is a unicorn. His complete inability to understand the world around him provides moments of genuine laughter. His friends include a mermaid who must be wheeled about in a tank, a troll who’s not all that bad and a short-sighted faun called Danny. They provide deliciously lunatic and original colour to a well-known plot.
Turning to picture books, Nick Jordan, an art teacher, has produced the amusing Teapot and the Dragon, which also uses familiar fairy-tale characters with an added twist. A princess is captured and it’s up to Jenny, the vegetarian dragon, to rescue her.
Finally, Elli Woollard and Benji Davies’s The Dragon and the Nibblesome Knight plays cleverly with similar material. When a baby dragon and a young knight meet, they realise that they don’t have to fight. The rhymes are well-written – ‘That’s better,’ yawned Dram./‘Now I must find a bite…’/But he fell fast asleep/in the moon-marbled night’ – and the message about friendship is naughtily questioned.