Scarlett Thomas is well known for her mind-bending adult fantasies: The End of Mr Y, her debut, followed a PhD student’s adventures with a cursed book. In her first book for a younger audience, Dragon’s Green, there is a similar fascination with the role of the book as artefact and conduit, as the heroine finds herself travelling to the Otherworld via the pages of a book called Dragon’s Green. Thomas is a deft and stylish utiliser of fantasy tropes: buried in the strata is Alan Garner’s Elidor, where magical objects shift into normal ones when in this world (there is a paperknife that becomes a sword); there are magical rings, crystals and a wand; and the shade of Diana Wynne Jones looks on over a helpful rabbit and an exquisitely refined dragon who eats carefully educated princesses.
Thomas’s best trick is her setting: following a worldquake, technology has regressed to around 1992, so there is no internet and no 3G, thereby allowing Thomas to revel in the physical delights of books and pen and ink. The plot is a classic quest: Euphemia (Effie to her friends) is bequeathed her grandfather’s magical tomes and must prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. The writing is packed with striking images: ‘She wore black polo necks that made her head look like a planet being slowly ejected from a hostile universe.’ There are sly digs at the worlds of fashion and education, as well as references to Antigone, the Beats and James Joyce; one particular test requires knowledge of Bulgakov. Self-reliance, intelligence, courage and friendship are vital for Thomas’s characters. The exciting pace will make this a gleeful companion for many a young teen and upwards.
Also playing with familiar ideas in a delightfully original way is Sebastien de Castell’s Spellslinger, which I devoured in two days. The magical race of the Jan’Tep have a stranglehold on power. If you fail a series of tests, you are doomed to becoming a non-magic semi-serf Sha’Tep. Our hero Kellen’s father is the most powerful mage in the city, but the problem is that Kellen is just not that good at magic. He’s understandably upset about being on the road to servitude and takes matters into his own hands. There are many memorable characters, including a red-haired wanderer who fights with deadly metal cards, a vicious squirrel cat and an ancient queen who is held together by a network of spells. Aside from the breezy tone and galloping plot, there are meditations on how atrocities build societies and how stories are shaped. This is one of the best young-adult novels I’ve seen in a long time – larky, clever and slick.
Kenneth Oppel’s Every Hidden Thing takes place in the Badlands of America, at a time in the 19th century when fossil hunters were seeking out bones, attempting to piece together skeletons and destroying each other’s reputations. When Rachel and Samuel, the children of two rival naturalists, meet at a lecture, their growing love for each other threatens to put them at odds with their parents as they seek the Black Beauty, a talismanic fossil once owned by a Native American. History and social consciousness play their parts here, and the fate of the Native Americans is not sentimentalised. Rachel, a fine palaeontologist, struggles against the party-going, marrying-well role her father has placed her in, while Sam is consumed with adolescent passion. The story is evocative and surefooted, displaying a frank attitude towards sex and growing up.
Much bleaker is Tanya Landman’s Beyond the Wall, which takes place in the AD 360s, in a Britain firmly under the yoke of the Romans. Cassia is a British slave girl, kept alive at the whim of her master; but rather than submit to his sexual advances, she bites his ear off, embarking on a journey that will reach all the way to Rome and beyond Hadrian’s Wall. I must admit that, despite the fineness of the writing, as a classicist I was not entirely convinced by the 21st-century thoughts of the characters: when a Roman looks at the forum, he sees ‘a monster edifice built on stolen land. He pictured the broken bodies of the slaves forced to construct it.’ Cassia ends up leading the tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall in a revolt, based, as Landman admits, very loosely on the Great Conspiracy, in which the Roman garrison rebelled and allowed the Picts in. For Landman this act, committed by a bored and demoralised soldiery, signifies an understanding of the Picts’ need for self-determination. In this book, all Romans are wicked and corrupt; at times, it feels as if the point that Landman is making might be better served by a novel set in Bristol at the time of the slave trade. However, the power and beauty of the text is clear, sharp and fierce.
For younger readers, Jacob Sager Weinstein’s The City of Secret Rivers is a stonking, rollicking delight. An attempt to summarise the plot would probably induce madness. Suffice it to say that Hyacinth is a young American who, on visiting London, is bemused by the fact that we don’t have mixing taps; on fixing the problem with an improvised faucet, she uncovers a parallel world. It turns out that we keep our water separate for a reason. For centuries, two groups have been waging war over London’s underground rivers. Here, umbrellas have magical powers and there’s a sophisticated pig who communicates solely by card. There are lovely jokes – the head of the Royal Mail Police Force is called Inspector Sands (listen out for announcements next time you’re on the Tube) – while the prose sings with effervescence.
David Almond’s new book for younger children, The Tale of Angelino Brown, is about imagination and playfulness. One day, a tiny winged creature appears in the pocket of a bus driver. It may or may not be an angel, but what is clear is that it’s an agent of the mischievous and the marvellous. As ever, there is joy to be had in Almond’s ear for the beauty and rhythm of everyday speech, and Alex T Smith’s illustrations are cheeky and apt.
Finally, a pair of esteemed writers have published picture books. First, our poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, and the illustrator Lydia Monks have produced Queen Munch and Queen Nibble. Queen Munch sports red pigtails and eats a giant breakfast in front of her subjects every morning; Queen Nibble is wraithlike and can barely stomach an olive. An Elizabethan would see here a joust between two humours: the sanguine and the melancholic. Munch’s jolliness, jocularity and colourfulness will please children, whose mouths will water at the food (as at the feast in The Very Hungry Caterpillar), and the writing is lyrical and limpid.
Neil Gaiman’s Cinnamon is a charged fairytale about a blind Indian princess who doesn’t speak. A tiger comes to visit the palace one day and teaches her about the world through love. It’s not all gooey, though – the fate of a bickersome old aunt is as abruptly violent as anything in Grimm, while the tiger himself is part beast, part god. Divya Srinivasan’s illustrations are luscious and bold.