Prepare for takeoff

13th August 2004 at 01:00
A Hat Full of Sky By Terry Pratchett Doubleday pound;12.99

The Gift By Alison Croggon Walker Books pound;7.99

Airborn By Kenneth Oppel Hodder pound;10.99

Harry and the Treasure of Eddie Carver By Alan Temperley Scholastic pound;12.99

Stephen Lucas selects fantasy and adventure for 10-year-olds and above

A Hat Full of Sky's dust jacket should carry a warning. Something like, "Beware: kids may demand more from their books after reading this", would do. Its big ideas about life and death and its anarchic spin on formulaic fairytales make Terry Pratchett's third children's novel set on Discworld - the planet lugged through space by a giant tortoise and four elephants that has spawned a whopping 27 volumes for adults - a challenging and entertaining read for lively minded Year 6s and up.

It picks up two years after its prequel, The Wee Free Men, which ended as nine-year-old Tiffany Aching took on the Queen of Fairyland armed only with a frying pan and a book on sheep diseases, but assisted by The Wee Free Men, a fearless race of "stealin' an' drinkin' an' fightin'" fairies who pee in witches' gardens.

In A Hat Full of Sky they return, as bolshie and funny as before. Tiffany leaves her farm to train to be a witch. Throwing up every time she gets on a broomstick is the least of her problems: a Hiver - an ancient thing that cannot die - is stalking her, so the Wee Free Men set off on what they cheerfully dub a "sooey-side mission" to save her.

Just as The Wee Free Men was shot through with Tiffany's memories of her granny, who died when she was seven, A Hat Full of Sky's slapstick humour is counterbalanced by her wrenching homesickness, the enlightened notion that helping people constitutes the heart and soul of witchcraft, and the Hiver's ideas about life and death, which have a whiff of Samuel Beckett about them.

If readers can forgive Pratchett for rushing Tiffany's first battle with the Hiver, this gravitas, together with the crackling energy of his ideas and style and his delicious subversion of traditional fairytales, makes A Hat Full of Sky a nigh perfect read.

While Pratchett veers from the fantasy rules, Australian author Alison Croggon sticks doggedly to them. The Gift tells the story of 16-year-old Maerad, a slave girl with magical powers whose parents have been murdered.

She is rescued by Cadvan, who suspects she is the one legend predicted would restore the Light when the Nameless one rose again and the Dark encroached.

The Gift is a solid re-imagining of well-worn fables told by everyone from Homer to George Lucas, and Croggon's sustained descriptions of fantastical creatures and settings are richly imagined and transport the reader. But The Gift bills itself as a translation of The Pellinor Chronicles, an ancient text from a lost civilisation. As a result, the dialogue is at times wooden, making engagement with the characters a chore. Maerad's "gift" is part of a complex system of laws, the gradual exposition of which weighs the book down too. The story will appeal to Year 7 to 10s who have read The Lord of the Rings and are hungry for something of a similar mould.

Rather than juggling a battery of big ideas, like Pratchett, Canadian author Kenneth Oppel has stuck to two or three rock-solid ones in Airborn and fleshed them out to produce a tightly plotted, fast-paced adventure with engaging and humorous characters that will appeal to top level Years 6 to 10.

Set in an imaginary past where gigantic airships rule the skies, Airborn tells the story of Matt, a cabin boy on the "Aurora" airship, who goes in search of a mysterious animal dubbed the cloud cat with his headstrong accomplice, Kate. When the action kicks off - kidnappings, shoot-outs with pirates, cloud cat attacks - Oppel's skill is to maintain tension by piling on twist after twist as events unfold. Airborn's action is underscored by Matt's memories of his dead father, which add thoughtfulness and depth to the book.

Harry and the Treasure of Eddie Carver is a resolutely shallow romp, which is exactly what Alan Temperley intends. Harry lives with a geriatric band of kind-hearted cons at Lag Hall, "The Wrinklies" of Temperley's first Harry book. In this follow-up, the Wrinklies embark on a quest to find murdered gangster Carver's stash of loot to bankroll a school and hospital in Africa.

Cartoon caricature baddies Gestapo Lil - Harry's one-time sadistic nanny - and Percy Priestly are hot on their heels, along with Sawn-Off Ruby and henchman GBH. The action is thick, fast and taut, particularly in the excellent finale. Despite the odd swear word and a gangster who drowns his enemies in a bucket of eggs, this book is suitable for Years 6 to 9.

But other than Aunt Bridget's abhorrence of guns and a brief moment where Harry contemplates the rights and wrongs of working alongside the Wrinklies, there is little for readers to ponder on after the final page.

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