Fantasy lands

14th February 2003 at 00:00
Victoria Neumark finds good and evil still in conflict in new and familar parallel worlds

The Wizard's Promise By Cliff McNish Orion Children's Books pound;8.99

Triss By Brian Jacques Puffin pound;5.99

Time Witches By Michael Molloy The Chicken House pound;11.99

Faerie Wars By Herbie Brennan Bloomsbury Children's Books pound;12.99

Abarat By Clive Barker HarperCollins pound;17.99

The Dungeon By Lynne Reid Banks Collins Children's Books pound;10.99

Imagine a world in which good and evil constantly struggle, nature unpredictably lashes out and technology has unforeseen consequences, defiling beautiful landscapes and altering people's ideas of themselves.

Then turn it into fantasy. Observers of everyday life may feel that no fantasy could be grimmer or more surprising but, on the whole, that's not what writers of children's books feel. And perhaps they are right. As TS Eliot said: "Humankind cannot bear very much reality" and children are even less keen on it.

Writers such as Cliff McNish and Brian Jacques have attracted large followings by creating parallel worlds in which beings can helpfully be identified by their appearance. Evil creatures have sharp teeth and good beings are, in the case of Jacques, furry and "fubsy" or, in the case of McNish, pleasingly young and bright-eyed.

The Wizard's Promise - the third book in McNish's Doomspell series - develops the theme of witches invading Earth and seeking to eliminate the children who alone can resist their power. Older readers feel the mantle of evil descend inexorably on their shoulders. Between the obscenely ugly Witches and their super-obscenely-ugly Gridda-breed variant, non-evil adults do not figure. In a fast-paced, gripping narrative, McNish does not labour the point too much and younger readers may well skate over it, but the message is: don't trust ugly old hags, especially if they fly.

Brian Jacques's latest Redwall novel Triss (soon available in paperback) is also well up to standard. Jacques's cod-medieval world, inhabited by small furry animals, is lavishly crafted and full of such pleasing details as the typical curved blade of a searat's sword or the moles' favourite meal "turnip'n'tater'beetroot pie".

Jacques creates a benevolent universe in which exciting adventures follow highly moral rules and the animal kingdom enjoys a multicultural diversity in which difference is to be relished rather than feared or scorned. In this episode Triss - the squirrel handmaid of a ferret princess - saves the day on numerous occasions, crossing the ocean to create a republic in which animals can live free of fear. It should sell well in America.

Jacques's writing is suffused with a geniality which former Mirror Group editor Michael Molloy shares. His first book for children, The Witch Trade, introduced us to a parallel universe with a flavour of The Addams Family, in which magic is not just normal but de rigueur, and in which young Abby and her friends the Light Witches defeat the Night Witches.

Now the sequel, Time Witches, takes the same characters for a ride through Victorian England, courtesy of the Wizard of Coincidence. Once more the baddies are defeated, thankfully, but the plot seems secondary to the prevailing mood of merry entertainment and friendly quips.

A simple lightnight dichotomy also organises Herbie Brennan's Faerie Wars.

In this excellent, fast-paced but touching tale, Brennan matches contemporary adolescents' worries about parents' divorce, school and spots with a "faerie dimension" in which demons (coming from yet another world of "Hael") keep being dragged into a quarrel between the Faerie of the Light - all of whom have the names of butterflies - and those of the Night, who are named after moths.

Brennan has fun with the names and the particle-physics technology that he creates to account for translation between dimensions (it boils down to the imagination or "psychotronic triggers"), and the family dynamics afflicting Henrym his human hero, and Prince Pyrgus, his faerie hero. Both are in mid-teens and are fired up for action, as is the reader of one of the best fantasy works to hit the shelves in a long time.

Clive Barker's view of the universe is much more sober and deeply etched.

Abarat is the beginning of a heavily-thought-out saga illustrated by the author. In its gloomy, dreamy landscapes, shades of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast jostle with the world of Alfred Lord Tennyson's Morte D'Arthur, with a Narnia twist.

Candy Quackenbush from Minnesota is out of her depth when she crosses to the world of Abarat - an archipelago of 25 magical islands, each of which embodies an hour of the day.

This obsessive, claustrophobic narrative has cult potential among teenagers, particularly those of the Gothic persuasion. In a concession to the conventions of fantasy, Candy saves the day but only, one suspects, until the next volume.

Lynne Reid Banks's approach is more direct and upbeat in The Dungeon. Set in the Middle Ages - filtered through a contemporary imagination and a globe-trotting plot - it presents moral dilemmas head-on. Bruce McLennan gallops from the Highlands of Scotland to China fuelled by his thirst for vengeance. He captures a slave girl called Peony and takes her home, where she makes friends with young stable lad, Fin.

We are, despite all the crags and castles, on familiar ground here. Reid Banks has always been a reliable deliverer of morality, whatever its setting, so evil gets its comeuppance and virtue is mourned. This kindly story marks a transition - a place where growing adolescents might start to clothe the brightly coloured shapes of childhood fantasy with the garments of adult understanding. They are drabber, but perhaps more versatile.

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