Children take on the test of time

21st July 2006 at 01:00
The past, present and future collide in the many adventures reviewed by Mary Hoffman


By Jeanette Winterson

Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;12.99

The People of Sparks

By Jeanne DuPrau

Corgi Books pound;5.99

Small-minded Giants

By Ois!n McGann

Doubleday pound;12.99

Rise of the Blood Moon

By Alan Gibbons

Orion paperback pound;5.99

The Mob - The Crow Chronicles

By Clem Martini

Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;6.99

Tanglewreck begins wonderfully, when a double-decker bus full of children vanishes from Waterloo Bridge while a phalanx of ancient Egyptians rides down the Thames.

The bus is the first victim of a Time Tornado, a phenomenon which becomes increasingly common as the book develops.

Silver, a traditional type of orphan heroine, brought up in a mysterious house (Tanglewreck) by a neglectful "aunt", is the legatee of an instrument called the Timekeeper, sought by Abel Drinkwater and Regalia Mason for their own villainous ends. Only she does not know where to find it.

This is a vigorous and varied read for the junior end of fantasy fandom, jam-packed with ideas and events. In fact there were almost too many of these towards the end, jeopardising the clarity of the plot. (And a wonderful sequence in a Black Hole is marred by a cloying Disney-esque triumph of the "speed of love" over the speed of light). So this is not quite Jeanette Winterson's perfect children's book, but there will be one eventually; it's just a matter of time.

The People of Sparks is second in a trilogy but deserves to be read in its own right because, in spite of its post-Holocaust future setting, it has a powerful message for now. People who have been living for generations in an underground city since The Disaster, have found a way out into the open, led by children Lina and Doon. Fleeing the city of Ember's crumbling infrastructure, 400 of them become asylum-seekers in the rural community of Sparks.

The good citizens of Sparks, without electricity or other benefits of a post-industrial civilisation have just begun to turn the corner and have well-stocked barns and a degree of prosperity. But a doubling of their population soon puts a strain on their surplus food.

It is a recipe for conflict, xenophobia and chauvinism, all of which follows. And it falls to Lina and Doon again to find a viable solution.

Jeanne DuPrau has embedded a topical issue into a completely credible future.

Ois!n McGann's Small-minded Giants is set in another post-Holocaust distant future but very few of the better human qualities are able to flourish in this dystopic, Blade Runner-ish world. Solomon Wheat lives in Ash Harbour, a city built inside a hollowed-out mountain with a glass dome. His father, one of the workers who scrape the ice from the outer surface of the dome, has gone missing, accused of murder. When Sol tries to find him, he is plunged into a series of violent and dangerous adventures.

The press release describes it as "PlayStation on paper" and whether you like it or not depends entirely on whether fights, flights and regular plot twists are what you want from a novel. This is much more likely to be the case if you are a 14-year-old boy than if you are a literature-loving reviewer.

Alan Gibbons has returned to fantasy with his latest novel, Rise of the Blood Moon. The topography is that of the Indian sub-continent, with all the names changed and, roughly west of where the border with Pakistan would be, stands The Black Tower. A terrifying creature known only as Darkwing comes to the tower every two months to drink the blood of a boy captive, Vishtar.

At the same time, all over the country, the people are preyed on by two manifestations of the risen dead: flesh-eating demons known as dark fliers and the slower slimy night-striders who drag the living under the earth.

One of those at risk, in the city of Parcep is Vishtar's sister Cusha.

There is a very large cast of characters, many with awkward and somehow clunky names like Gardep, Oled and Qintu, and the concept is epic in scale, so that you have to be a dedicated fantasy reader to keep up.

Still, they aren't as hard to remember as the names of the crows in Clem Martini's The Mob. The author has made, on the face of it, a reasonable decision to have all the birds' names begin with K. But it's really hard work to distinguish your Kark from your Kyrk, your Kora from your Kyra.

The Mob isn't about crows any more than Watership Down was about rabbits.

But it is an epic tale of bravery, betrayal, rivalry and foolhardiness. It is a fully conceived and convincing world, though I find it hard to imagine that it has enough potential variety to fill two further books in the series.

And if you are a cat-lover, as so many of us who feed birds are, you will find Clem Martini cruelly prejudiced towards the feline in favour of the avian.

Mary Hoffman's Stravaganza novels are published in paperback by Bloomsbury

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