Review policy

I am very happy to review any novel that fits in with the theme of this blog: novels aimed at 9-14 year olds, preferably with a fantasy/ speculative world setting. However, I will make clear in the review that I was sent the book by the publisher and I will write my honest opinion. Please feel free to contact me via Twitter or Facebook, or fantasticreads at gmail dot com.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Review: Ante's Inferno by Griselda Heppel

Image: femalefirst.co.uk

12 year old Ante has joined Northwell School on a music scholarship, where she discovers an old friend from Primary school, Florence. However, Florence and her friends seem to be going out of their way to be unkind to her, and one lunchtime they are chasing Ante through school to get her back for standing up to them. Ante ducks into the school hall and up into the organ loft. But Florence, following her up the stairs, lunges for Ante. There is a crack, and they both fall over the balcony.

When they come through, there is a boy wearing odd looking clothes nearby. His name is Gil, and he leads them down a dark corridor to the Underworld. Why are they there? How can they get back to Northwell? And why is Florence so convinced that Ante has stolen something from her?

I absolutely loved this gripping novel. Peopled with figures from classical mythology and following the structure of Dante's Inferno, with Gil (who has learnt stories from the classics) leading Ante and Florence in the way that Virgil leads Dante through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, it is an exciting, interesting read. It is not necessary to be familiar with either Dante or classical mythology, as Gil has to explain the stories to Ante and Florence, but readers who are familiar with Percy Jackson will be familiar with many of the figures, even if they haven't read Greek myths. A fantastic book for readers 9+. I'm glad to see that Griselda Heppel's next book, The Tragicall History of Henry Fist, is forthcoming. I hope we don't have to wait too long!

Disclosure: I received this book from the author, who kindly sent a review copy. However, this review represents my honest opinion about the book.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Maps and ponies

On Friday, I went to an excellent British Library event celebrating The Hobbit's 75th birthday. One of the speakers was David Brawn, who spoke about Tolkein's illustrations for the book, including his maps, and again I was reminded of my love for stories with an epic journey and maps in books.

Image: amazon.co.uk

Anne McCaffrey is probably best known for her Dragons of Pern series of fantasy novels for young adults and adults, and I had never heard of this novel until I saw it in the wonderful Pulp Fiction Books in Edinburgh. It's the story of Lord Artos (later King Arthur) travelling to France to buy warhorses strong enough to carry a man and armour. Galwyn, a Romanised Celt with a facility with languages, travels with Artos and his band to France to help to translate. Galwyn's pony is the only one that stops the most valuable horse from injuring the other horses and men, so he gains a privileged position, more so when he learns the developing trade of the farrier, and this puts Galwyn, Artos and the horses in danger.

This was a great read, combining horses, a "quest" and convincing evocation of history, and a useful map of Galwyn's journey with Roman names for British towns. I really enjoyed it. However, the climactic scene (much like in the Hobbit!) Galwyn is injured and takes no part in, which for me is a little less than satisfactory. However, I highly recommend it for anyone 10+ who loves horses.

Image: amazon.co.uk


Robin McKinley's  The Blue Sword, winner of the 1983 Newberry Honor award, is the story of Anghared (Harry) Crewe, an orphan in a period that feels like 19th Century. In a sort of fantasy version of colonial India (Daria) Harry does not fit in. She is not a dainty, demure girl; she is a strapping young woman who loves riding and is unfashionably enthusiastic about the history and culture of Daria and the part of the country called Damar, which is uncolonised.  One evening the army station where Harry is living is visited by Corlath, leader of the Hillfolk (a tribe of Damarians) warning of an impending invasion from the North, a land of evil magic. Corlath spots Harry, and feels that her destiny is linked to the future Damar, so he kidnaps her.

As is the way in much epic fantasy, Harry's failings as a colonial miss are advantages for life with the Hillfolk- she is strong, brave, a good horsewoman and quick to learn sword fighting. She discovers that she has a "kelar" (magical second sight linked to Corlath's royal bloodline) and in a vision sees Lady Aerin, an ancestor of the royal family. She enters a tournament to become a Kings' Rider, succeeds and becomes Harimad-Sol. Her destiny is linked to the future of Damar in ways she could never have foreseen.

I enjoyed this book greatly, although there are some implications of the colonial theme which now (after two Gulf wars and other post-colonial legacy in the Indian subcontinent) seem rather uncomfortable. Personally I found the journey of Harry and Corlath rather hard to visualise; I would have liked to have had a map to follow. Having said that, I'm sure I'd have loved this book as an 11 year old, and would have loved the horsey aspects as well as the sword fighting and magic.

Sadly it seems that both these books are out of print, but there are plenty of second hand copies on most of the common second hand book sites. 

Monday, 10 September 2012

Warrior Scarlet by Rosemary Sutcliff

Image: bookdepository.co.uk

This month's theme from Playing by the Book's "I'm looking for a book about..." carnival is disability. Of course, it is a very appropriate theme given the wonderful closing ceremony of the awe-inspiring Paralympics was yesterday. I am very proud that my city has been the host to this and the Olympics, and has welcomed athletes and visitors from all over the world with the humour and creativity our beautiful city is famous for.

When Zoe announced that this month's theme would be disability, I immediately thought of Rosemary Sutcliff's  Warrior Scarlet. It is the story of Bronze Age Drem, who is 9 at the start of the novel. He lives with his mother, brother, grandfather and his foster sister Brai in a village on the South Downs. Drem is expecting to join the Boy's House, train as a warrior and earn his Warrior Scarlet cloak by killing a wolf. However, Drem has been born with a withered right arm. Overhearing his grandfather's doubts about his ability to kill the wolf and fully become a man, Drem runs away, but meets Talore the one handed hunter who convinces him that if he use a bow and arrow, he must learn to throw a spear so well that others forget that he doesn't do so by choice:
"If the thing is worth the fight, fight for it... There are ways- ways round, and ways through, and ways over"
Drem does indeed learn to throw a spear, to ride and to fight, and he joins the boys' house. However, his path to manhood and his warrior scarlet is not straight forward or easy, and he does indeed both fight for it and find ways round, through and over.

I am a huge Rosemary Sutcliff fan. Her books lyrically and vividly evoke history, and I would certainly credit them with my love of visiting historical sites. Her research was impeccable, as The Independent noted in her obituary in 1992. She contracted a form of rheumatoid arthritis as a child and used a wheelchair for much of her adult life. She wrote sensitively about disability in several of her novels, both from the point of view of her characters and partly about the often cruel behaviour towards disability in the societies she wrote about.

Warrior Scarlet is perhaps my favourite of her novels. I love that Drem's character is influenced by his disability, but it is not informed by it. In many children's books, a period of disability is a test that characters must go through in order to become better people (such as Katy in What Katy Did or Deenie in Deenie) or disabled characters have special powers (Percy Jackson in Rick Riordan's novels who has dyslexia and ADHD but is the son of a God), but for Drem, his disability is something that he must learn to manage in order to become a functioning part of his society. The adjustments that he makes and ultimately the concessions that his tribe makes allows him to do this, and after all, isn't that what the able-bodied world should be doing with people with disabilities? Shouldn't that be our Paralympic legacy?