Shipping forecast;Children's books

12th March 1999 at 00:00
HIS MAJESTY'S STAR SHIP. By Ben Jeapes. Scholastic Press pound;5.99. SOUNDTRACK. By Julia Bertagna. Mammoth pound;4.99. SPIN OF THE SUNWHEEL. By Elizabeth Arnold. Mammoth pound;4.99.

One hundred and fifty years into the future, we are back in the Navy. HMS Ark Royal is part of a peaceful delegation to a distant star system in response to an invitation from benign visiting aliens: "We have a planet we would like to share with you."

Naturally, suspicion and paranoia abound. No one entirely trusts the aliens; the delegates mistrust each other, being representatives of competing terrestrial federations; one of them, the Machiavellian megalomaniac Krishnamurthy of the Confederation of South East Asia (Greater India, as he sees it) is planning a coup.

His ship, along with all the others, is heavily armed in direct contravention of the spirit of the enterprise. Our hero, Captain Gilmore, a man who lives in terror of being promoted above his capabilities but with reserves of tactical creativity, redeems the mission - assisted by his trusty crew.

This is all solid traditional space fiction of the kind we see far too seldom now. It would be a pleasure in itself, so assured and convincing is the writing, but Jeapes has much more to offer than a good yarn.

As he points out, aliens are not made-over "humans with funny make-up... aliens are, by definition, alien". His own aliens are extremely other. They are physically unattractive to humans (who call them Rusties) and their efforts to communicate verbally are obstructed by lack of shared nuance or body language. Even their names transliterate to meaningless approximations - Verbatim Bald, Leaf Ruby.

It is a testament to Jeapes's skill that the hermaphrodite quadruped, Arm Wild, with its flaky skin and four nostrils, emerges as the most engaging character in the whole novel. But the most glorious conceit is the space station UK1, last bolt-hole of the exiled House of Windsor, ruled by the entrepreneurial King Richard and his unlovely son, Prince James.

The Navy also features in Soundtrack. This time it's the Navy of today, stationed at a base sited too close to the Scottish fishing village of Laggandall. Over the bay hangs a comet; nuclear submarines manoeuvre below the surface, their presence creating uneasy divisions in the community.

For Finn Silverweed, these divisions are manifest in his family. His father has built up a business supplying electrified fencing to the Ministry of Defence. His adored uncle is a fisherman. When a trawler's nets are fouled by a submarine, sinking the vessel and drowning the crew, Finn (who is convinced that he has somehow foreseen the tragedy) sees the community polarise around him.

His schoolfriend's father, who once saved him from drowning, commanded the sub; his uncle was the trawler's skipper. Finn emerges from the conflict with his own internal conflicts resolved. The writing is heightened and a touch more poetic than one might expect from a teenage narrator, but ultimately affecting and memorable.

Still on the water, Spin of the Sunwheel charts a journey in a narrow boat, Brigantia, along the Midland canals from Berkshire to the Severn, back through time to the dawn of British mythology and forward to a millennial flood.

Gwen, who lives on the boat, is rescued from drowning by Brigid, who claims to be daughter of the river god, Nodens. Gwen, says Brigid, is the reincarnation of Guendoloen, Queen of the Celts, and her ancient enemy. They must combine to bring harmony to land and water. In spite of Brigid's extensive explanations, which occupy much of the narrative, it all remains deeply confusing.

Jan Mark

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