Children's Literature

17th March 1995 at 00:00
Ghost Dance, By Susan Price, Faber #163;9.99, 0 571 17182 6. Hill of Darkness By Jan Michael, Faber, #163;9.99, 0 571 17407 8.

One of the rarest of storytelling gifts is the ability to create an original, magical world with its own logic and its own special atmosphere. This is a gift which Susan Price possesses in abundance, and which is used to extraordinary effect in her Ghost World sequence.

The frozen landscape she evokes, with its wolves and wastes, and its shamans who come and go between this world and the Ghost World beyond the Gate, may draw on Northern mythology and folk tradition, but it is an original, haunting creation.

Ghost Dance, the third book in the sequence, opens with an unforgettable scene in which a gyrfalcon circles the sky, observing the destruction of the Northlands by hunters and woodcutters. The gyrfalcon drops to earth to become the witch-girl, Shingebiss, who goes off to "spell the Czar", because he alone has power to stop the destruction. But the Czar is filthy,paranoid and unpredictable, driven to roam his own warren-like palace alone, in search of remote rooms where he can risk falling asleep for a few hours. To influence this bejewelled and disgusting tyrant, Shingebiss must pit her wits against his resident wizard, the fraudulent Englishman, Master Jenkins.

The book has the pace and the harshness of a folk tale. It is not easy to sustain these throughout a full-length novel, but Susan Price is a remarkable storyteller with a daring and poetic voice, and she succeeds triumphantly. This book, like the two which precede it in the sequence, combines a tense and dramatic plot with an atmosphere of dreamlike beauty and clarity.

Jan Michael also conjures up a distinctive atmosphere in Hill of Darkness,although the world she describes could hardly be more different from Susan Price's Northlands. Julia, Jan Michael's heroine, lives in the Seychelles, presumably at some time in the past, since the Catholic church she visits conducts its services in Latin. One night, Julia and her brother, Thomas, trespass on the forbidden hill which is the home of the Greegree man. This bogeyman is reputed to make candles out of the fat of children and although he never actually appears in the book, Julia is afraid that he has seen the two of them, and that he will take his revenge.Her attempts to find out more about Greegree magic are met with adult silence and denial, but when Thomas has an accident which puts him in a coma she is convinced that he is going to end up as candle-fodder. She therefore concocts a ritual which involves burning her treasures both in church and on the hill, thus combining the Greegree man's candles with the Church's Lenten sacrifices that she and her friends have discussed.

There is an enormous amount of vivid detail about the Seychelles, but the story moves slowly and the book never really confronts its own underlying question about the relationship between religion and magic. What Julia is trying to discover is whether the Greegree man and his magic actually exist. Disturbingly, the answer appears to be that they do. The success of the final ritual does not provide a proper resolution of the story, because if Julia is right in thinking that her candles have saved Thomas she has not defeated the Greegree man, but simply accepted his power over her. That is an unsettling rather than a happy ending. Jan Michael has written a book with a haunting background described in skilful and elegant prose, but the story set against that background lacks the pace and the internal logic which make Susan Price's book so satisfying.

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