24th March 2000 at 00:00
TROY. By Adele Geras. David Fickling Books pound;14.99

SHADOW OF THE MINOTAUR. By Alan Gibbons. Orion Dolphin pound;4.99

Of these two novels for the 11-plus age group, Troy is the one I want to keep. I've read it twice and I don't want to pass it on to my local school. I want to read it again.

What makes some books special? These are both good novels from skilled writers, and of course personal preference is a factor. We shouldn't feel embarrassed about it because reading skills are not only a required competency: young readers need to be encouraged to develop and defend their own taste and these novels recognise the breadth of that taste.

These novels belong to the fantasy and historical genres respectively, but each is more than an example of a genre, and that's exciting. They also share a preoccupation with the irrational, personified by the Greek Gods. They examine their young protagonists' struggles to live in the material world alongside their perceptions of an irrational and non-material world.

Geras tells the story of two sisters, Marpessa and Xanthe, growing up in Troy 10 years into the siege; Gibbons's hero, Phoenix, is a modern urban boy. Though separated by millennia and cultures, these characters are recognisable because of their author's clearly transmitted understanding of young adults. They are heroes for our times: run-of-the-mill kids, as we were, and they all understand themselves to be slightly out of step. They are bystanders in an adult's world, and not of huge consequence. Geras reminds us that in times of siege, young women without means could not expect to be fed first. Gibbons's great scene involving casual bullying on a bus made me cringe because I, like his passengers, have held my tongue in such situations. But these kids aren't whining victims. It's a tough world out there, but that's life.

Except that these books make something mre of life. Something else - which I call the irrational - is alive and well. Gods and goddesses walk the dusty streets of Troy and something leaves malign messages on Phoenix's computer.

Phoenix's timid father designs computer games. The new one, Legendeer, would be a stroke of genius if it didn't have a mind of its own. Unavoidably, Phoenix and his father are drawn into another reality as they play. Phoenix relives the exploits of such ancient heroes as Perseus and Theseus and through courage and ingenuity he accomplishes all the good things that are currently expected of 14-year-old males: he defeats bullies, bonds with his dad, respects his mother's intuitive side and displays responsible attitudes to sexual and cultural issues. All good stuff, except that something is still leaving beastly messages on the screen.

Gibbons gently leads his readers towards the irrational, gives it and them a whirl, then shuts the whole thing up. It was fun, but it felt fixed: a good read for those needing an author to tell them what to think. Phoenix is advised not to dream and when he stops, his life improves.

Geras, on the other hand, enters the dangerous and exciting territory of living with the irrational and of passing through it. In this mesmeric story of Ancient Greece, Marpessa and Xanthe do not pass through unscathed. But the author trusts her heroines with the competence and the right to deal in whatever is required for their survival.

Troy has it all: love, hate, sex, death, intrigue, babies, battles, monsters, gods and animals. And the brilliant thing is that Geras lets us sample the sweetest and darkest corners.

That's why this book is so wonderful: it lets the reader roam. So I think I'll have to pass my copy on after all, and buy a new one to lend to friends of all ages, confident that they too will think it one of the best books they've read.

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