Magic spells for good and evil

26th January 2001 at 00:00
The struggle between good and evil is a constant preoccupation of storytellers. It lies at the heart of classic myths, folk-tales and fantasy novels, the last enjoying a massive resurgence in popularity among young people thanks to the Harry Potter novels and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy.

Perhaps one of the most chilling accounts of this struggle, retold through the centuries, is the story of Faust, who wagered with the devil and suffered horrific consequences. Darkwater Hall, the latest novel by Catherine Fisher (Hodder Children's Books pound;4.99) revisits this theme with renewed energy, with the story of a girl who sells her soul to an immortal power and lives to regret the bargain. We all seek power and knowledge, but how much will we pay for them? How far will we go?

These questions lie at the heart of this compelling story for top primary readers. Set in 1900, it is written with a sense of timing, rhythm and poetry. It recounts the plight of Sarah Trevelyan, a proud pupil-teacher who is desperate to reclaim the family home, Darkwater Hall, lost by her grandfather in a wager. Its present owner, an alchemist called John Azrael (shades of Lord Asriel in Pullman's Northern Lights) is after her soul. Sarah and Azrael enter into another wager, which is echoed 100 years later in yet another twist of circumstances. This is a great story, with all the signs of becoming a classic.

Spellfall by Katherine Roberts (The Chicken House pound;10.99) is another absorbing novel for keen older readers, working with similar themes of powerful forces being turned towards bad ends. Instead of an unlikely hero called Harry, we have Natalie, an ordinary, unassuming sort of girl who doesn't know that she is of magical parentage. As with Harry, she has a dead parent who had special powers. Her mother was from Earthaven, a world of mysterious forces that lies beyond the Thrallstone. An exiled Spellmage who wants Natalie's power kidnaps her from behind the recycling bins in the supermarket car park.

The everyday and the fantastical minglein a full-blooded adventure in which a highly inventive and assured author deals with many contemporary issues.

Two republished novels, also aimed at fluent older readers, delve with greater subtlety into what makes people good or bad. Wicked by Anthony Masters (Orchard Books pound;4.99) is the powerful tale of a violent brother whose aggression stems from a terrible secret. Masters maintains the suspense to the end with writing that is taut and grittily expressive. In I am Mordred (Hodder Children's Books pound;4.99), Nancy Springer provides a thrilling and original take on the Arthurian legend, portraying Mordred as a pitiful victim of circumstances. Springer's prose has poise and insight.

The Rockets series (A amp; C Black pound;3.99 each) offers fun, captivating stories for young independent readers, picking up on the Potter-led popularity of wizards and witches. The Wizard's Boy stories by Scoular Anderson focus on Eric Wizzard's relationship with his hippy wizard dad, who is always getting his spells wrong (SO embarrassing!). The Mrs Magic titles by Wendy Smith relate the wild and wacky goings-on at the Black Bat Hotel.

The Serpent's Cave by Ann Turnbull (Hodder Story Book pound;3.50) is a beautiful story for newly confident readers which revisits the time-worn folk theme of the machinations of a wicked stepmother. The king is enchanted by his beautiful new wife, a bad fairy with a heart of ice who hates his children. Turnbull's style is poetic and resonant, befitting the lyricism of the tale, and is well matched by Alan Marks's atmospheric pen-and-ink washes.

Another wicked queen appears in Andrew Matthews' retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's The Wild Swans, published here in an edition that also includes The Little Matchgirl (Orchard Fairy Tales pound;6.99). Matthews encapsulates in clear, simple language the loneliness of a princess and her longing for her brothers, who have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother. This Orchard series is an excellent introduction to the rich archetypes of the world of fairy tale.

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