Fantastic flight on a parallel plane

23rd December 2005 at 00:00
Elaine Williams enjoys the company of smugglers, secret agents, a feisty girl and her goose

Fly By Night By Frances Hardinge Macmillan Children's Books pound;12.99

Lost Boy By Linda Newbery Orion Children's Books pound;8.99

Absorbing novels for children are much in demand during the short days and long nights of the Christmas holiday, and teachers looking for class readers might want to check these two out for next term.

Fluent readers aged 10 and above with a liking for fantasy adventure will be engrossed by Frances Hardinge's first novel Fly By Night, set in a parallel universe of a fractured kingdom coloured with 18th-century references. It follows the fortunes of Mosca Mye, a girl forced to flee her hamlet after the death of her father Quillam, whose books have been burnt for their seditious sentiments of tolerance and freedom.

Mosca is thrown into a world full of murder and intrigue involving clashes between powerful guilds and a desperate aristocracy. With an oversized goose called Saracen and Eponymous Vent, a silver-tongued trickster, Mosca escapes the loveless home of a tyrannical uncle in search of a better life in the city of Mandelion.

They fall in with a glittering array of characters, pitching their wits against an ice princess, highwaymen, smugglers and secret agents who operate in the city's many coffee houses.

Hardinge has created a dazzling plot full of wit which poses fundamental questions about the nature of society and our place in it. Mosca is a curious heroine, rather like Philip Pullman's Lyra, a fierce black-eyed street survivor whose passion, quick-wittedness and intelligence are a power for change. Mosca associates with a host of Dickensian figures with preposterous names such as Mabwick Toke, leader of the Guild of Stationers, and Cakes, a sentimental redhead who works in the House of Marriages. Fly by Night is like delving into a box of sweets with a huge array of flavours.

Linda Newbery's moving ghost story, Lost Boy, is a shorter but still compelling novel for the same age group. Matt, a teenager whose parents have just taken on a secondhand bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, becomes embroiled in two tragic storylines. A keen cyclist, Matt finds himself mysteriously reliving a fatal road accident of years ago. This event becomes linked to another, the story of a boy lost in the exposed hills of the Welsh borders.

Linda Newbery is adept at creating stories alive to young people's contemporary concerns. The power of the ghostly tales woven through Matt's story comes from their underlying themes about peer pressure and persecution.

She shows how easily the most vulnerable people in a community can be scapegoated, in this story a confused old man trying to come to terms with terrible loss.

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