Lasting impressions

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
David Buckley discovers memorable reads in these fairy tales, myths and spine-chillers for modern times.

Tales of Beauty and Cruelty. By Kate Petty and Caroline Castle. Orion Children's Books pound;5.99.

Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie. By Holly Black. Simon and Schuster Pounds 9.99.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. By Rick Riordan. Puffin pound;12.99

The God of Mischief. By Paul Bajoria. Simon and Schuster pound;12.99

Some children's stories whip you along on a switchback ride of invention, providing the entertainment and doses of fear of a good day at Alton Towers, but are quickly forgotten. Others linger in the memory, and hit a deeper vein.

Most stories in Tales of Beauty and Cruelty manage to linger. Kate Petty and Caroline Castle have recast Hans Christian Andersen's tales in contemporary teenage settings. Enter rootless youths and miles of mad driving, crates of unrequited crushes and young people with immense powers of concentration on their appearance and managing their music collections.

The fairy story origins create interesting conjunctions of style where loyalty and goodness meet cynicism. In a reworking of "The Steadfast Tin Soldier", Jon is mocked by friends who cannot believe the beautiful Amy would ever look at someone so lacking "fitness", but Jon finds her by following "the remembered journey dictated by his heart".

Arresting openings make the moral ground clear: "I'm so pretty, sometimes I take my own breath away," says Flora, the bitchy swan who torments her ugly duckling sister with the sibling cruelty that drives parents to despair.

Endings mix hope and, as in a modernised "The Little Match Girl", pathos that has the simplicity of song: "The bitterest cold had descended like an invisible mist ... claiming all small and helpless things."

Although neat reversals of fortune - in which the vain and cruel get their comeuppance - may seem too easy in a world increasingly arbitrary in its distribution of disaster, these are modern stories with a reassuring belief in goodness and the underlying power of love.

Valiant belongs in the invention and entertainment category. Val is a sporty New York girl driven to leave home when she finds her mother seducing her boyfriend. She joins the teenage vagrants of Manhattan in the forgotten tunnels of the subway and falls in with a gang led by the charismatic Luis, who has "second sight". Luis can communicate with the exiled faeries and acts as courier to Ravus, a powerful troll with a gift for healing, who lives among the ironwork of the Manhattan Bridge and distributes medicines to other fugitive faeries.

However, faeries are dying. A mermaid is pulled out of the East River, too eaten by crabs to alert humans to her true nature. Ravus gets the blame, Val falls in love with him, and the story turns into a faerie whodunit as Val helps Ravus find the true murderer.

Holly Black cunningly merges a nightmarish image of life in the damp, rat-infested subway system with the horror of modern faerieland, where victims are turned into the strings of a harp, creating a cacophony of bitter wailing when strummed. "This is some spooky-ass shit," observes Val's friend. So it is, and very entertaining.

Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is based on the reasonable premise that if the Greek gods were immortal in Ancient Greece, they would still be around, but probably their home would be somewhere above the new centre of western civilisation, modern America.

And they would still be having affairs with mortals - whence the "half-bloods".

Percy Jackson is the son of an ordinary mum and Poseidon, God of the sea.

At first, though, he doesn't know it, and being set upon by a minotaur seems a bit unfair for a dyslexic boy with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, who's been thrown out of school. He thinks his best friend is wearing shag-carpet trousers, until he realises Grover is a satyr with goat's legs. Ares, the Greek god of war, has a cameo role as a Hell's Angel in a cool and comic heroic fantasy, which is probably waiting to be filmed.

Paul Bajoria's The God of Mischief is a richly written Gothic thriller peopled with Dickensian names, such as Sloughter Cripps and Bonefinger, a sinister manservant who threatens the safety of orphaned twins Mog and Nick Winter when they are sent to live in a spooky mansion owned by their mother's distant cousin. With plunging gargoyles and scarecrows who seem to come to life, this is an atmospheric tale designed to send a shiver down young spines.

David Buckley is a part-time English teacher in Sheffield

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