5th May 2000 at 01:00
There is fantasy, and there is the Fantasy Theme Park, with its Time Slip Zone, the Forces of Light and Dark Zone, the World Ruled by Magic Zone and the Anything Goes Zone, where people with names of no discernible provenance conduct rituals to no discernible purpose.

Fantasy used to be the form of fiction elected by writers who had big ideas to communicate, such as mathematicians, linguists or anthropologists. Consider the inverted logic of Carroll's Wonderland, or Le Guin's Earthsea, where magic is Newtonian physics. In the Fantasy Theme Park magic is like the Newfangled Tango: "There's nothing to it. You just sort of stand there and just sort of do it."

In The Doomspell by Cliff McNish (Orion Dolphin pound;9.99) the witch Dragwena, exiled from Earth by the wizard Larpskendya to the world of Ithrea, kidnaps human children through some kind of time portal on the chance of finding one who can be used to further her evil ends.

Such a one is Rachel, who may also be the child-hope, long-awaited saviour of Ithrea's enslaved inhabitants, for Rachel has special powers and her magic rivals the witch's own spells. As Rachel never discovers how her magic works, neither do we, but it is strong enough to defeat the witch, liberate Ithrea and return Rachel and her brother to their own world. This is the first part of a trilogy.

William Nicholson hasnot had to look far for the premise of his novel The Wind Singer (Mammoth pound;12.99). The colour-coded city of Aramanth is regulated by SATS, first encounteredin infancy and still hanging over the heads of adults.The story follows the fortunes of the nonconformist Hath family, whose members buck the system, a tyranny connived at by the tyrannised.

Nicholson is a screenwriter and the book features some memorably cinematic set-pieces, although frequently at the expense of the main characters, too often referred to perfunctorily as "the children". This, too, is the first part of a trilogy.

Warriors of Alavna byN M Browne (Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;5.99)is a time-slip tale in whichtwo teenagers, Dan and Ursula, enter a mysterious mist on a school trip to Hastings and emerge in ad 75 to find themselves fighting alongside the Celtic tribesmen of the Combrogi against marauding renegade Romans. But this is less Roman Britain than Virtual Roman Britain with magic and shapeshifting. Dan, an average Joe, and six-foot misfit Ursula become what they might wish to be, and a possibly unintentional air of wish-fulfillment pervades the story.

Paul Shipton's The Man Who Was Hate (Oxford University Presspound;6.99) also features two teenagers but they do not enter the past - the past comes to them in the form of the Sleeper, ageless embodiment of evil. The Sleeper unfortunately chooses to wake up under a particularly hideous block of flats in which the pair happen to be one thunderous afternoon. Also in residence is The Man Who Was Hate himself, Victor Grundy, so consumed by a lifetime's loathing and resentment that he proves an ideal receptacle for the Sleeper's ancient power, which turns him into a basilisk. Victor starts to enjoy himself: "Ah, the scrape of claws on metal in the Summertime!" The story zooms along on a decent mythological chassis, unencumbered by the earnest humourlessness that weighs down so much fantasy.

The publicity hand-outwith Colin Thompson's Future Eden (Simon and Schuster pound;9.99) explains that the book was created "through daily postings on the Internet ... Thompson became subject to the thoughts and desires of his readers who logged on daily or weekly." It does indeed read like the work of a bunch of complete strangers who have never met but who can all recite The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy from memory. This one comes from the Anything Goes Zone.

Did William Mayne have a trilogy planned when he wrote Earthfasts back in the 1960s? On a Swaledale hillside a ring of uncountable standing stones shifted, time hiccoughed, and out of a cave marched an 18th-century drummer boy who had entered it 250 years before in search of treasure. When he encountered two schoolboys, David and Keith, he was still beating the drum. Five years ago Mayne resumed their story in Cradlefasts and now completes the set with Candlefasts (Hodder Children's Books pound;12.99).

David and Keith are now adults, the drummer-boy-turned-farmhand is courtinga checkout girl from thesupermarket and the remarriage of David's widowed father has produced his little sister, Lyddy, an insouciant time-traveller. Keith's relatives, on their farm below the fidgety Jingle Stones, face an uncertain future after their lease expires, and the stones still have not settled down. Through them lies a route to the past with a solution to Keith's problems and something else, for Lyddy.

Miraculously, Mayne has kept faith with his original vision, and his characters,and his style. He must have influenced a good fewwriters since he began publishing almost half acentury ago, but no onewrites as he does. Heremains a complete original,a damn-your-eyes individualist - intriguing, frequently infuriating, but never less than true to his material.


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