A trip on the light fantastic

25th July 2003 at 01:00
THE DIVIDE. By Elizabeth Kay. Chicken House pound;11.99

DOCTOR ILLUMINATUS. By Martin Booth. Puffin pound;4.99

ARTEMIS FOWL: the eternity code. By Eoin Colfer. Penguin hardback pound;12.99

THE ILLMOOR CHRONICLES: The paternoster catastrophe. By David Lee Stone. Hodder pound;10.99

Journeys to imaginary worlds are all the more entertaining with a few smiles on the way, writes Victoria Neumark

It's a winning combination, humour and fantasy, if you can swing it. To make it work, children's authors need underlying friendliness, otherwise the leaven of humour can turn sour and fantasy develops biting undernotes.

Elizabeth Kay, despite the silly packaging of The Divide (a hard cover that opens in the front, like flies on trousers), hits it off: friendly but idiosyncratic beasts, satisfyingly evil villains, and young protagonists who make mistakes but stumble towards maturity.

Felix and Betony live either side of a divide between two worlds. In his world (also ours), Felix is dying from a heart condition. In her world (fairyland but with other names), tanglechild Betony (a kind of elf) sets off to get her older brother and sister to save the brittlehorns (sort of unicorns). The two coincide at the Divide, one of those convenient places on which children's fiction relies, and defeat the baddies, who are peddling untried spells to the credulous fairyland masses. This knowing take on evil - it's not by the sword but by spin that the wicked flourish - allied to the fairyland-with-a-twist element, gives the narrative depth.

Martin Booth is a similarly accomplished storyteller who also uses a collision between a dream and the everyday world to launch a trilogy of good versus evil. One summer, Tim and Pip move house and meet Sebastian, a ghost (but a realistic boy, too) who is pursuing his father's enemy across time. The father, Dr Illuminatus, seems to have gone to his ancient alchemical ancestors, but 600 years is of little consequence to the devilish de Loudeac. Booth packs almost too much incident into his fast-moving tale: readers may need the next two volumes to pull all the elements together. A compelling summer read.

Humour is Artemis Fowl's middle name. Eoin Colfer is riding a winning horse with his comic sci-fi series and this episode is bang on. Sulky, sharp and keen on gadgets, Artemis embodies his readers, young adolescents keen to take on the world with little but their imaginations and burgeoning testosterone. In this book, Artemis makes a super-computer and tries to outface the Mafia. He gets his comeuppance - sort of. "You can't make friends with a viper," remarks one of the characters, sagely. But can you catch a snake by the tail? Wait for the next episode.

David Lee Stone is aiming for the same market: games-playing males who replay comedy science fiction TV series such as Red Dwarf over and over again.

The Illmoor Chronicles are a bit too knowing: you have to believe in your own fictions to draw in readers, and names like Groan, Quickstint, Forestall and Teethgrit overegg the pudding of humour. Yet this larky story zips along with great relish for rhetoric and plenty of tension as hero Groan tries to track down the city's missing children with all the means, magical or otherwise, at his disposal. It's kind of a verbal video game, a winning combo.

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