Fight the good fight

12th August 2005 at 01:00
David Buckley selects novels that celebrate heroes of historical conflict

Secrets of the Fearless By Elizabeth Laird Macmillan Children's Books Pounds 12.99

Peter Raven: Under Fire By Michael Molloy The Chicken House pound;12.99

Leonardo and the Death Machine By Robert J Harris HarperCollins pound;5.99 pbk

War: Stories of Conflict Edited by Michael Morpurgo Macmillan Children's Books pound;9.99

Two hundred years after the Battle of Trafalgar come two ebullient naval stories of the Napoleonic Wars. Both are thick with cannon smoke and grapeshot, and the sort of youthful heroism that makes Peter of the Secret Seven look like a fussy wimp. In Secrets of the Fearless, John Barr is press-ganged from his native Scotland at the age of 13 to serve on HMS Fearless, first as a powder monkey on the gun-decks, skidding on the blood of severed limbs as he runs to the stores to fetch cartridges and shot; and later as a midshipman, a young sailor being trained up to be an officer.

When John's friend Kit turns out to be a young French heiress posing as a boy to hide from her tyrannical uncle, both become involved in a world of naval espionage on the French mainland. As they move from 13 to 14, taking their hormones with them, Laird's thriller also becomes a sensitive love story in which you long for a happy ending. Laird just about manages to keep in view the fact that war is a horrific and bestial experience, and that heroism should not be confused with glory, but it's hard not to feel a surge of old-fashioned patriotism as the British fleet sails into Corunna to rescue the beleaguered British army at the end of the Peninsular War.

But go with the flow of the pumping action, and a hero and heroine you can care about, and this is a jolly good read.

Peter Raven is another hero of the gun-decks who retains his limbs and takes everything in his stride in Michael Molloy's Peter Raven: Under Fire.

No post-traumatic stress disorder for this young midshipman, despite seeing his naval colleagues tortured and killed by the maniacal Count Vallon, an aristocratic French psychopath who brings piratical mayhem to the West Indies. Vallon has designs on the monarchy of French-held Louisiana, and Peter's mentor, Commodore Beaumont, is the James Bond of 1800 whose mission is to frustrate him, while Peter hones his desire for revenge. Things get personal for Beaumont when both he and Vallon fall in love with the same American heiress.

Michael Molloy's insight into the world of secret agents before electronic gadgetry may be as fanciful as Bond, but it feels real. And the subtlety of both these historical thrillers is that they avoid jingoism by having French heroes working alongside the British.

Teenagers hooked on art will enjoy Leonardo and the Death Machine, Robert J Harris's portrayal of an apprentice Leonardo da Vinci scuttling round Renaissance Florence to rescue the kidnapped girlfriend of Lorenzo de'

Medici. He's helped by a comically earthy young Botticelli, whose name may seem to linger on the tongue like the moody grace of his paintings even though it meant "little barrels", after his stocky build.

The young men in this story are the mischievous owners of names that later became so much bigger than their owners that they float in our consciousness like artistic Gods. There is a delight in the way Harris redresses the balance. Young Leonardo has amazing powers of visual recall.

He can remember his way round an enemy palace from a quick glance at the plans, or swiftly sketch the movements of a bird in flight. So he's a bright lad, but you wouldn't expect much more than a few A-stars, and young readers unimpressed by the magic of his name may find it hard to lift the character off the page.

The 15 stories in the War anthology edited by Michael Morpurgo are written by familiar children's authors, and deal with the aftermath and effects of conflict rather than the thick of battle. A knight returning from the crusades is shocked by the corruption of the medieval church whose faith he has fought to defend. A soldier back from Iraq finds himself taunted in a pub by opponents of the war. Eleanor Updale's "Not a Scratch" is the melancholy story of a series of lives ruined by a soldier dying from the First World War 20 years after it ended.

Most are sensitive, well written pieces you can envisage turning up in a GCSE English anthology, and perhaps the lack of action makes it a book for teachers to plunder rather than for teenagers to sit down and read. In "Waiting for the Peace", Michelle Magorian shows us VE day through the eyes of a young boy keen for a couple of days off school, unaware that for many joy is muted by the absence of those who have died. And teachers born to the Second World War generation may reflect wryly on their parents' modest consumerism: "This calls for a celebration!II'll open the pears."

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