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Review - A germ of JK and a pinch of Pullman

On a cold, grey night, a man with blue fingers turns up at a house on stilts and says that he can make snow.

As opening premises go, this one is fairly engaging. It is the start to The Snow Merchant, the first novel by Sam Gayton.

Mr Gayton, a qualified teacher, spent two years working as a teaching assistant at Bath's Widcombe Junior School, while he wrote The Snow Merchant.

The book is a tightly plotted story about 12-year-old Lettie (named after one of Mr Gayton's pupils), who - thanks to an absent mother and a drunken, gambler father - serves as underage landlady at the White Horse Inn. For reasons unknown to Lettie, the inn sits on stilts above the land; also for reasons unknown to her, her absent mother left a note forbidding her to leave the building.

And so she waits in impoverished loneliness for her mother to return. Instead, however, the Snow Merchant turns up, peddling magical wares. He is an alchemist, with the power to transform matter from one thing to another.

Indeed, after his arrival everything changes. Lettie leaves the inn and, together with the Snow Merchant and her best friend Noah, travels out to sea to discover the secrets of snow.

If Mr Gayton owes a little to JK Rowling - "gastromajus", a potion that transforms people into their last meals, could have been brewed by Harry Potter - it is as indebted to Philip Pullman as Lettie's father is to the moneylender.

Much of the writing relies on Pullman's conventions of other-worldliness: it is full of shillings, gas lamps and oddly named drinks. Noah has a twig growing from his shoulder, its flowering and wilting reflecting his emotions, like a vegetative daemon.

But, like Pullman, Mr Gayton knows how to tell a story: The Snow Merchant rips along quickly and there is enough originality to keep the reader guessing.

Also, he has a knack for clever imagery. Moonbeams "pooled on the window ledges like wax"; the sea "tossed everyone ... in the air like salad leaves". He is also quietly, subtly funny: Lettie's mother is sentenced to die "in a horribly gruesome way, involving nothing but a teaspoon and two barrels of beetroot soup".

And there is real coherence to the story. The themes of alchemy and change run throughout the book: Lettie's birth, for example, changes Teresa and Henry into Ma and Da; Noah's friendship irrevocably changes Lettie; being turned into a bottle of beer transforms her father in more than one way.

True, The Snow Merchant itself is not transformative: readers will not be changed dramatically. But they will be transported, and that, surely, is good enough.

The Snow Merchant is published by Andersen Press at #163;12.99.

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