Children's books

2nd February 2007 at 00:00
Nicholas Tucker delves into some lives less ordinary

Sebastian Darke: Prince of Fools

By Philip Caveney

Bodley Head pound;9.99


A swashbuckler was originally a braggart hoping to make an intimidatory noise by striking his sword on his shield. The word has kinder associations today, and as such can certainly be applied to this lively first novel for children from an author previously known for adult thrillers. It tells of young Sebastian, an Elf-man and apprentice jester with a fatal inability to make anyone laugh.

Accompanied by his massive companion Max, a shaggy talking "buffalope" with an Eeyore-like outlook on life, the two set out for dangerous foreign parts. Things look bad until they meet Cornelius, a pint-sized but brave warrior. Add a beautiful princess, her evil uncle, endless hairy brigands, and there is plenty of action for all.

This story zips along with plenty of jokes, outrageous moments of melodrama and odd spots of violence of the type that never really seem to hurt. A sequel involving pirates is promised soon; readers who enjoy this book, and there should be many, can start looking forward to it now The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation

Volume 1: The Pox Party

By M T Anderson

Walker Books pound;12.99


This novel, which is timed to coincide with the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade next month, tells the extraordinary tale of Octavian, an 18th-century African child of noble descent shipped to Boston with his beautiful mother.

He is given an intensive education in Latin, Greek and philosophy by the self-styled College of Lucidity as part of an ongoing experiment to discover whether slaves respond to higher learning. Such experiments actually existed at the time, with the Duke of Montagu sponsoring a Jamaican student's education at Cambridge University (he went on to become a mathematician and poet).

Octavian also shows promise, but a cruel new college director is determined that he should fail for fear of setting a dangerous example to other slaves.

He escapes to serve with the rebel army in the War of Independence, but is recaptured. Written in period pastiche, witty as well as compassionate, this is a tremendous read for adults as well as teenagers. Volume 2 cannot come too soon

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