Frances Hardinge’s last novel, Verdigris Deep, was a masterpiece of oddness that played with folklore and made the ordinary world a shadowy, troubling place. Her new book, Gullstruck Island, promises lots. Gullstruck Island is a fantastical place where birds can unravel your soul, volcanoes talk and you can be hummed to death by beetles. The island is governed peaceably by a caste of clairvoyants called the Lost, in tandem with a colonising power called the Cavalcaste. One day, however, the Lost all die mysteriously – except one, the Lady Arilou. Thought to be an imbecile, she is looked after by her sister, Hathin; when their village is destroyed by the Cavalcaste, they embark upon a dangerous quest. There are many wonderful things about this book – it is a thoughtful meditation on revenge, as well as a fable about the dangers of colonisation – but Hardinge doesn’t quite make Gullstruck Island a place that lives. This is mostly to do with Hathin, who is quite a dull character; and none of the others seems real (especially the ‘crowd-witch’, Jimboly, who looks and sounds as if she’s walked out of an episode of 1980s Doctor Who). Hardinge’s language, though, is still marvellous – ‘all around her, with a soft golden roar like a lion waking, the world was changing’. In terms of a brilliant and inventive read for a twelve-year-old, it is almost perfect.
Patrick Ness follows his extraordinary The Knife of Never Letting Go with The Ask and the Answer. We pick up exactly where we left Todd, the remarkable, empathetic and resourceful hero. He has been captured by the wicked Mayor Prentiss, who has installed himself as President of New Earth. Ness is now, alas, far too concerned with ‘issues’ (a casualty of this is his language – a lot of the inventiveness seems to have gone). The humans enslave the native species (weird, spindly, mushroom-white humanoids called ‘The Spackle’) and end up branding them and eventually killing the whole lot. It feels forced and clunky. The story is sometimes told from the point of view of Viola, a girl whose spaceship has crashed on the planet, but Ness is not very good at distinguishing between Viola’s and Todd’s voices. He also uses too many one-sentence paragraphs.
Which becomes very irritating after a while.
Much better, and with no sign of any encroaching social issues, is Season of Secrets by Sally Nicholls. Molly and her sister Hannah are sent to live with their grandparents when their mother dies. Their father lives on his own, slowly falling apart; Hannah smashes plates, and Molly keeps her mouth shut. One night she runs out into a storm and sees a beautiful young man, wearing only a pair of breeches, sprinting down a lane – which would be unusual in any case, but this particular young man is being chased by a pack of slavering hounds led by a man with antlers sprouting out of his forehead. Filled with pity and horror, she sees him pounced upon; when she comes back the next day, she follows the trail of his blood and befriends him. Sometimes he vanishes in front of her eyes. He makes things grow out of nothing: he blows a kiss at her, and it turns into a red flower. His eyes are wild and sparkling, his hair curls; when Molly is with him, she feels as if she is in the presence of a god. Molly has, in fact, stumbled upon the Oak King – the god of summer who must die to make the winter come. Nicholls is a writer of enormous power and strength, using an ancient myth in new and surprising ways. This is a wonderful, evocative, lively book that is unafraid to be original, and will delight and move boys and girls over the age of nine or so – and adults, too.
Also based on myth is The Well Between the Worlds by Sam Llewellyn, which uses the stories of the Atlantis-like country of Lyonesse (the Scilly Isles are thought to be all that remains of it). Idris Limpet is our hero: born into a family of low standing, he is selected by a mage to become a monstergroom. The land of Lyonesse lies on top of another universe, that of the monsters; they are captured and then killed and burned to create energy. Monstergrooms are well respected as they risk their lives every time they catch one of the beasties – the monsters can take on any form, and can read your mind. Much as in Gullstruck Island, the old ruling class – in this case the Knights – has been displaced. While the Knights live in gold stone towers, amidst green forests, in harmony with their surroundings, the Captains are cruel, fat and possibly in league with the monsters to drown Lyonesse (though what’s in it for them is hard to see). Idris is a charming chap: ‘when he grew up he would make things happen ... He would know the stars, talk to birds, become expert in the placing of standing stones. He would make things happen without spoiling other things in the process.’ Llewellyn is an excellent writer, and this reinterpretation of the Arthurian cycle is an absorbing and thrilling read for sword-lovers over the age of ten.
Very strange, and deeply disturbing, is Lazlo Strangolov’s Feather and Bone. Lazlo Strangolov is, of course, a pseudonym – for Matt Whyman, desperately wanting to be the new Lemony Snicket. What he has written is extraordinary, but I’m not at all sure that children will like it. It begins in a settlement somewhere in the unfrequented, desolate parts of Eastern Europe, surrounded by a Grand Perimeter. Everybody in it – obese, hideous Cosmina, who trundles around on a motorised trolley; the sinister Mister Petri, who provides food; and our hero Kamil’s father, who has disappeared – used to be employed in the Squawk Box (a chicken factory) but that has long since closed. Kamil and his friend Flori find a dead raven with four skulls strapped to it; something is going on in the factory, and it is not at all pleasant. Strangolov creates a sense of menace and unease, but the ultimate conclusion is so horrific that it left me thinking more of Iain Banks than A Series of Unfortunate Events. There are bleak black-and-white drawings on every page; the book may also contain, encoded in those drawings, the secret of the world’s imminent destruction – but that’s another matter.
Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart’s The Immortals is a rousing finish to their excellent The Edge Chronicles. This one is set several hundred years in the future, and follows the fortunes of a young lamplighter propelled into a thrilling world of battles and adventure. This book has all the rambunctious ingredients that made the others so memorable, and will keep fans occupied for the summer.
Also to be noted are Philip Reeve’s Fever Crumb (Scholastic 340pp £12.99), an intelligent, funny and wise ‘prequel’ to his Mortal Engines Series; and The Annotated Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (W W Norton 384pp £28), a sumptuously illustrated new edition with a well-researched, academic commentary by Annie Gauger.