Real fantasies

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Michael Thorn follows journeys to other worlds

The inventiveness of the Stewart-Riddell partnership is still on a roll in Freeglader, the seventh book in the Edge Chronicles (not counting the World Book Day title, Cloud Wolf). This is the third book to feature Rook Barkwater, grandson of Twig, who was the hero of Beyond the Deepwoods, the first Edge book, published six years ago.

Anyone reading that debut title and then jumping straight to Freeglader would be comfortable that they were back in the same fantastical terrain, but also aware that much history has passed - exactly as it should be in a developing fantasy series. Indeed, despite the fact that the endpapers of both the first and the most recent novels show the same "map", the very geography and geology of Edgeworld has changed over time, with significant consequences, all explained in splendidly spoof-scholarly tones in the booklet accompanying the large double-sided fold-out, The Edge Chronicle Maps, published separately.

Freeglader is entertaining fantasy adventure at its finest and, costed out per exciting incident, would prove exceptionally good value for money.

Rook's adventures in Parts 1 and 2, which recount the destruction of Undertown and the transportation of the library, with Rook taking the full brunt of the sepia storm, being cured in a caterbird cocoon and living to help recreate the Great Library in the Free Glades, might well have been sufficient in themselves, but readers are treated to a further 100 pages describing war with the goblins.

Less action-packed and less extravagantly fantastic, with characters who proffer worldly-wise wisdom - "Your land was too beautiful and so, like all bright things, it attracted destruction" - The Sea of Trolls by Nancy Farmer, about the same length as Freeglader, is an immensely satisfying read, capable of enthralling all ages. Older readers, for example, will be amused by the Mountain Queen who keeps a harem of "16 louds", while the Stewart-Riddell audience of keen primary readers will enjoy the incident when the two heroes Jack and Thorgil are gathered up by a giant mother spider. Inspired by the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill and by Norse mythology, The Sea of Trolls is a big fantasy rooted in Saxon England.

At one point in Farmer's book the characters ride on the back of a pig. The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander starts with the escape of a magical pig, the recapture of which provides the quest element in this immediately captivating opening to "The Chronicles of Prydain". This is a very welcome reissue of a perennial favourite in the US, where it is considered a modern classic.

Openings are always important, but particularly so in fantasies, where the reader has to be drawn in to an unfamiliar world. It's possibly my childhood diet of The Lone Ranger and John Ford Westerns, but elements in all these books reminded me of classic cowboy narratives. The great exodus in Freeglader with the priceless ancient scrolls borne on library sledges? A wagon train. The "strange old man" who turns up at Anand's tea-stall at the start of The Conch Bearer? The ominous outsider appearing in the swing doors of a saloon. The gently naturalistic but mysterious opening to Divakuruni's wonderful novel quickly shifts into a fantasy journey of spiritual and worldly discovery. Exotic, magical, humane - and extra-special.

The remaining titles are light entertainments in comparison. The 7 Professors of the Far North, set partly in Edinburgh, takes rather too long (67 pages) to get its child characters through the portal into the fantasy world, but it has energy and colourful characters.

Amadans by Malachy Doyle has an entertaining David and Goliath moment when Grandad fells the fiendish Haranga with a bowl of porridge thrown like a Frisbee, but on the whole demonstrates the difficulty of making a computer screen a believable portal.

Otto and the Bird Charmers and Troublesome Angels and Flying Machines are both charming and highly readable fancies, the former being the more eccentric and individual: even the main character, Otto, has trouble "trying to keep up with things". No such problems with Hazel Marshall's more sedate narrative style. The first of Robin Jarvis's new Deptford Mouselets series, aimed at a younger audience than his Deptford Mice books, features Fleabee, a child rat resolute in her aversion to violence. But Jarvis's gleeful descriptions of life in the sewers will delight the book's more bloodthirsty readers.

Michael Thorn is deputy head of Hawkes Farm Primary School, Hailsham, East Sussex


By Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell Doubleday pound;12.99

The Edge Chronicles Maps

By Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell

Corgi pound;5.99

The Sea of Trolls

By Nancy Farmer

Simon Schuster pound;12.99

The Conch Bearer

By Chitra Banerjee Divakuruni

The Chicken House pound;12.99

The Book Of Three

By Lloyd Alexander

Usborne pound;5.99

The 7 Professors Of The Far North

By John Fardell

Faber pound;7.99


By Malachy Doyle

Orchard Books pound;4.99

Otto and the Bird Charmers

By Charlotte Haptie

Hodder Children's Books pound;5.99

Troublesome Angels and Flying Machines

By Hazel Marshall

Oxford University Press pound;6.99

The Deptford Mouselets: Fleabee's Fortune

By Robin Jarvis

Hodder Children's Books pound;5.99

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