Children's Literature

8th September 1995 at 01:00
Journey Through Llandor, By Louise Lawrence, Collins #163;8.99. - 0 00 185610 3.

The Ear, the Eye and the Arm, By Nancy Farmer, Orion #163;10.99. - 1 85881 147 3. Age range 12 - 15

Fantasy worlds offer ways of looking at the dilemmas and difficulties of growing up while also telling a brisk and entertaining story. By taking their characters out of present-day reality, Louise Lawrence and Nancy Farmer create spaces in which children are forced to reflect on the norms and values of their familiar world without this seeming unlikely or unmotivated, a device which goes back through the best fantasy literature to innovators like George MacDonald.

Journey through Llandor is the first part of a trilogy, and its narrative shape is incomplete, leaving its three protagonists about to hibernate in preparation for a new stage of the journey which is both a flight from the malignant but elusive Grimthane and a quest for a way back to their home "above ground" in Ditchford and the hurly-burly of Lydminster Comprehensive. The fat and unappealing Roderick and his tormentors, Craig and Carrie, fall into Llandor through one of the "gateways" which from time to time deliver humans into its pre-industrial but ethically advanced society of self-governing communities. From their first encounter with an aggressive tree - the children themselves mention The Lord of the Rings, usefully getting this comparison out of the way - they are at the mercy or in the care of the elves, goblins, mages, wise women and persons of mixed birth (Llandor is distinctly multi-cultural) they meet.

Journey through Llandor excels in its recreation of the lore of dwarves, kelpies and boggarts, and in its remarkable descriptive passages, evocative of German late-romantic painting. The sensuousness of both winter and summer scenes, landscapes and domestic interiors, balances the delineation of psychological changes within and among the children, and the book ends with an intimation of the trilogy's larger theme, the reason why the Grimthane should have wanted to capture them and why he is so relentless in their pursuit. The next volume in the series, due in 1996, will be eagerly awaited.

Where Llandor has domesticated wolves, Harare in 2094 has genetically engineered talking monkeys, a 100-floor vertical "street", the Mile-High MacIlwaine, and three of the oddest private eyes in fiction. It too concerns lost children, a family of three from the Shona urban elite, who, despite their familiarity with airborne buses and limos, and an "automatic Doberman", in many ways resemble their 20th-century predecessors: privileged, energetic and resilient, if a little spoilt.

Nancy Farmer has attempted a daring synthesis of futuristic comedy and cultural interpretation, juxtaposing scenes of strip-cartoon mayhem with an exploration of Shona spirit mediumship, and its role in personal and national life. Except for a rather stiff picture of a "time-warp" community of traditional pastoralists, she succeeds remarkably well, achieving a climax in which the routing of some truly horrific nasties loses nothing when a set of disgruntled waiters accuses them of being "stingy tippers". Improbable characters - Trashman, the She Elephant, Mrs Horsepool-Worthingham, the low-lifes Knife and Fist - pulse with life. Eye,Ear and the spidery, elongated, super-psychic Arm hustle and detect in a deadpan idiom all their own, yet behind this anarchic, headlong invention there is a sense of the contradictions of the actual Zimbabwe. Nancy Farmer's glossary is not entirely accurate but she is to be congratulated on working out so original an idea.

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