Rewind to action

28th April 2006 at 01:00
Tony Bradman welcomes a new era of historical novels

Powder Monkey

By Paul Dowswell

Bloomsbury pound;12.99

Victory

By Susan Cooper

Bodley Head pound;8.99

Standing in the Shadows

By Jennie Walters

Simon and Schuster pound;5.99

Snatched!

By Graham Marks

Usborne pound;5.99

The Hill of the Red Fox

By Allan Campbell Maclean

Floris Books pound;5.99

It wasn't so long ago that historical fiction for young people seemed to have been consigned to the dustbin of literary history. In the 1980s and '90s publishers wouldn't touch it with a bargepole, the accepted wisdom being that modern children wouldn't read long novels full of strange words and difficult concepts.

That idea seems to have been scuppered, and historical fiction has a big future again.

Last year's Battle of Trafalgar anniversary stimulated the imaginations of several writers. Powder Monkey, by Paul Dowswell, is set in 1800, when Britain was at war with France and Spain. Young Norfolk lad Sam Witchall is press-ganged into service on the Royal Navy frigate HMS Miranda. He is soon given the highly dangerous role of "powder monkey" on the gun deck: his predecessor vanished in a cloud of pink mist when a stray spark hit a cartridge he was carrying.

Paul Dowswell does a fine job of creating a maritime world that would be more than familiar to adult readers of Patrick O'Brien's Jack Aubrey novels, with its weevil-filled ship's biscuits, great storms, plentiful use of the lash and several thrillingly described battles.

The plot tends towards the episodic, but Sam is an engaging character, and the story makes for a cracking boy's adventure read of the solidly old-fashioned kind.

Susan Cooper's Victory tells the tale of another press-ganged boy called Sam. Sam Robbins finds himself on Nelson's flagship in the years before Trafalgar, and then at the great battle itself.

This is a time-slip story in which Sam's scenes are inter-cut with the travails of Molly Jennings, a 21st-century English girl who has been forced to move to America after her widowed mother re-marries. Both children are struggling with new environments and challenges, but Molly's problems pale into insignificance beside the mortal dangers Sam faces.

There's a link between stories, and both are well told, but I can't help feeling this is two novels uncomfortably squeezed into one. The Navy scenes are terrific, though, and definitely make the book worth a look, especially for top primary pupils doing work on Horatio Nelson.

Fans of pony stories and period family sagas will love Standing in the Shadows, the second book in the Swallowcliffe Hall trilogy. Each book is set in the upstairsdownstairs world of a great English country house - while the first story took place in the 1890s, the action of Standing in the Shadows begins in the summer of 1914, and centres on the problems of Grace, a teenage kitchen maid who would rather work in the stables.

Jennie Walters handles a large cast of characters very well, and also manages to convey a real sense of society changing under enormous historical pressure. But she never loses sight of Grace, a well-rounded character who leaps off the page and will engage the sympathies of young readers. War, class, romance, death, horses - it's all there in a heady mix that left me looking forward to the final instalment of the trilogy. The romantic sub-plot means it's pitched a little older than the other books reviewed here, for readers aged 12 and above.

Snatched! seems like more of a picaresque romp than a truly historical novel, although, technically speaking, it's set in 19th-century England at the time of the Crimean War. Daniel is an orphan boy brought up in a circus after being abandoned as a baby, and the action begins when he becomes embroiled in a fiendish plot involving kidnapping and treason. There are plenty of thrills and spills in this lively novel, and lots of richly imagined, almost Dickensian characters, but not a great deal of depth.

It's always good to come across a forgotten treasure, and I'm glad The Hill of the Red Fox, first published in 1955, has been reissued. The story is set in the 1950s, a time of unimaginable historical distance for today's young people, when 13-year-olds such as Alasdair, the book's hero, might be packed off to stay with strangers on the Isle of Skye and allowed to wander around unsupervised.

Alasdair discovers all is not as it should be, and finds himself drawn into a mystery involving murder and Cold War espionage. Some children might need to have the historical background explained, but it hardly matters, as the tale is firmly in the tradition of Scottish boy's adventure stories. It reminds me, at some points, of Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped, and at other times of John Buchan's The 39 Steps. A rattling good yarn, make no mistake.

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