The Dark and Dangerous Gifts of Delores Mackenzie by Yvonne Banham; The Rescue of Ravenwood by Natasha Farrant; Vita and the Gladiator by Ally Sherrick - review by Philip Womack

Philip Womack

The Old Haunts

The Dark and Dangerous Gifts of Delores Mackenzie


Firefly 252pp £7.99 order from our bookshop

The Rescue of Ravenwood


Faber & Faber 346pp £7.99 order from our bookshop

Vita and the Gladiator


Chicken House 328pp £7.99 order from our bookshop

Delores has a gift, though you might not want to call it exactly that. Ghosts are drawn to her and she’s been plagued by them all her life. Her parents have gone missing and when things become too dangerous, she’s packed off to a magical school that masquerades as a bookshop in Edinburgh, where she must learn to use her powers with the help of Oddvar, who dresses in Victorian clothes, and a large talking bird.

There are plenty of problems for Delores to deal with. Two creepy dolls haunt her bedroom (in a particularly memorable scene, they replace a doll’s head with a bird’s skull). Prudence, one of the other students, is an illusionist who can make her see and sense terrible things (for instance that her dinner is crawling with insects). But a greater danger awaits: a terrifying ghost is haunting the city and it wants children’s souls.

Yvonne Banham’s book is a dreamy, involving delight, exerting a charmingly idiosyncratic pull on the reader. While she excels at rendering the domestic unheimlich, she is also brilliant at capturing the simple, comforting pleasures of a hot chocolate, a warm fire and true friends. This is Banham’s first novel and it augurs wonderful things to come.

Natasha Farrant’s latest adventure story has an old-fashioned feel but also a modern twist. There is no lord at Ravenwood House: it was inherited by three brothers, one of them a gentle artist who isn’t very good at keeping up the maintenance. His niece, Bea, has a mother who can’t cope, so Bea grows up there among the woods and the fields, while her parents gallivant around the world. There’s an ancient tree in the grounds (known as Yggdrasil), and Bea soon feels as rooted in the place as the tree, along with the rest of her extended, blended family, which includes Leo’s girlfriend and her hedgehog-loving
son, Raffy.

The forces of finance and development are at work, however, and Ravenwood comes under threat from both within and without. Farrant’s settings are beautifully realised, from dirty, polluted London to Venice to Ravenwood itself. The novel is as much about bringing together fragmented families as it is about saving a special place from harm. Thrillingly improbable journeys punctuate a story infused with the legends of Vikings, Norse mythology and a deep understanding of child psychology.

We are in Londinium, AD 125, at the time of Emperor Hadrian. It is now fashionable to treat any empire and its agents as oppressive; historians may see the relationship between the Britons and the Romans as more complicated. But for the purposes of children’s fiction, we need a clear antagonist. Enter the ‘Eagle Man’, Cassius Agrippa, who is betrothed to young Vita, daughter of the brave magistrate Marcus Tullius Verus. Agrippa, who is manipulative and cruel, fulfils the brief of unscrupulous
oppressor brilliantly.

When Marcus is murdered, Vita is mistaken for a slave and sent to join the gladiators. Here she uncovers a network of rebellious Britons, including the magnificent Brea, a princess with a pet wolf, who will help her to expose her father’s murderer and be reunited with her mother and younger brother. Theatrics play an important role, with something like Hamlet’s mousetrap being employed to catch the culprit and a drama based on the myth of Theseus and Ariadne being carefully woven into the text. Vita is a combination of Theseus, slayer of monsters, and Ariadne, finder of clues. Ally Sherrick’s book is involving and exciting, re-creating the intrigues of Roman Britain and the bloody struggles of gladiatorial
battle with panache.

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