2015: Books (Part One)

I’ve been writing a lot this year (finishing Railhead, writing Reeve & McIntyre 4, and starting Railhead 2, among other things). That sometimes means I can’t find much time to read. It definitely makes it harder to read novels – I find I’ve skimmed a whole chapter and taken nothing in because my mind has drifted away to whatever story I’m working on. But here are some of the books I have read and enjoyed this year.

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I am still reading to Sam of an evening, and it’s still the best bit of the day. I think my favourite read-aloud book this year was Richard Adams’s Watership Down. I remember reading it when I was Sam’s age (in 1979, when the animated film came out) but I didn’t recall very much about it, beyond enjoying it. If you don’t know it, you could be forgiven for assuming it’s a twee children’s book about anthropomorphised rabbits, but it’s so much more than that. The rabbits are very human, but they don’t have clothes or human houses or anything, like Beatrix Potter characters; they live as rabbits live. But this isn’t a Tarka the Otter-ish attempt to get inside the minds and lives of real animals, either – these rabbits have their own language, societies and myths. The central characters, escaping from a doomed burrow, make a great cross-country oddyssey to establish a new burrow of their own. Once there, they come in conflict with a terrifying, totalitarian burrow run by the tyrant General Woundwort. Stalinist bunnies sound silly, I know, but they aren’t when you read the book, which is a) an edge-of-seat adventure story, and b) a kind of exploration of different social structures. It’s unease about eco-doom and authoritarianism is very 1970s, and its plucky, pragmatic, decent heroes are very British. It really deserves to be shelved alongside Tolkien as one of the great English fantasy novels of the 20th Century.

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Favourite children’s books published this year include V. Peyton’s endlessly inventive and engaging post-apocalyptic coming-of-age story Silo the Seer, which I reviewed here, and Philip Womack’s compelling fantasy The Broken King, (technically from last year, but part of an ongoing trilogy).

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I also enjoyed Matt Ralphs’s debut Fire Girl, a witch vs witch-finders adventure set in a parallel 17th Century England where the Civil War involved all sorts of magical goings-on. I’m a bit wary of this type of historical fantasy now, mainly because there seems to be so much of it that I wonder if it’s helping to edge actual historical novels out of the children’s market (the Civil War and the Protectorate are great settings for a story, but the only recent books I’ve seen which use them add magic to the mix). But it’s very unfair to criticise a book for not being a different book, and Fire Girl is as full of hissable villains, hair’s breadth escapes and awful monsters as young readers could hope.

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A late entry is Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas, which is hard to avoid at the moment as it’s in all bookshop windows and plastered in poster form all over the London underground. But happily the hype is justified. It’s a very charming and rather beautiful Father Christmas origin story, with superb black and white illustrations by Chris Mould. It’s quite dark in places, especially in the early chapters – as an adult I found much black humour to enjoy in young Nicolas’s dreadful childhood, but if you’re reading this as a bedtime story, and you have the sort of child who won’t let you knock off until you reach a happy or at least a hopeful bit, you’d better be prepared to make the first instalment quite a long one. Eventually good prevails, of course, and it ends up being very merry and very Christmassy indeed.

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Finally, when Sarah McIntyre isn’t busy mucking about on stage with me or illustrating our books, she writes and draws her own picture books. This year she published Dinosaur Police, which is big, silly, fun and full of lovely little McIntyre touches (and pizzas which look good enough to eat). If you like dinosaurs, or, indeed, police, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?

Part Two will follow tomorrow…

 

Review: The Broken King, by Philip Womack

Philip Womack is one of the best contemporary writers of children’s fantasy, but it’s been a while since he published a novel (The Liberators, back in 2010). So it’s good to see him return with The Broken King, the first volume in a new trilogy called The Darkening Path.

The Broken King is about Simon and his quest his to find and rescue his younger sister Anna, who has been kidnapped by otherworldly forces. Philip Womack is well-versed in myth and literature, and I know he can trace this idea of the abducted child back to roots deep in the mists of folklore. I’m not nearly so knowledgeable, so, off the top of my head, I can only trace it back as far as Labyrinth. That film, you may recall, showed us that if you are lumbered with looking after your baby brother you have only to call three times upon the goblins and David Bowie will arrive in startling trousers to spirit the rugrat away to his Goblin Kingdom.

When left in charge of his sister, Simon devises a similar plan of outsourcing the job to a supernatural monarch. Since Anna is an older and altogether more annoying child, and probably too much of a handful for mere goblins, he calls instead upon the mysterious Broken King. Anna vanishes instantly, carried off to a nightmarish realm which we see only fleetingly in this volume, although its minions find their way into our world to menace Simon as he sets out, full of remorse, to win his sister back.

He is aided by Flora, who has made a similar deal with the Broken King, and by a strange, disquieting boy named Pike, who seems helpful, but may not be entirely human. There are benign supernatural forces lined up on his side – shining figures who ride on winged stags – but they’re just as cryptic and unhelpful as you’d expect. There are also some mercurial beings who pose as a pop trio called Raven and the Flames when travelling in our world.  Driving around London in their-open topped car, Raven and her band seem to have come straight from the 1960s, and so, in many ways, does The Broken King. It reminds me agreeably of the Susan Cooper and Alan Garner books I lapped up as a lad. There are ambushes and adventures, riddles, secret passages, a lost temple to Mithras beneath the streets of London, a grisly secret map, and all manner of sudden twists and reversals. There’s a real sense of deepening menace, but enough good and kindly characters are met along the way to stop it feeling too remorseless. I think it will please any young fantasy fan.

The only downside is that it made me eager to know more about the Broken King and his strange otherworld, about which we get only hints and glimpses. But part two, The King’s Shadow, is published on the 7th of May, with the final volume to follow in 2016. I look forward to finding out what Philip Womack has in store for us.

The Broken King and The King’s Shadow are published by Troika Books