Twists between worlds

1st August 2003 at 01:00
Victoria Neumark enjoys some magical mystery tours

The Wee Free Men

By Terry Pratchett; Doubleday pound;12.99


By Cornelia Funke; The Chicken House pound;12.99

The Book of Dead Days

By Marcus Sedgwick; Orion pound;8.99

As master of the suspense movie Alfred Hitchcock put it, every story has to have its McGuffin, that wrinkle, plot twist or device that makes it stick, like a burr, in the reader's mind. Where adult literature may disguise this base fact with the messy, unresolved stuff of human relationships, books for children rarely do. Mostly, they make up for this rigidity with the brio of their storytelling or a bit of knockabout humour.

Sometimes, as in the case of Terry Pratchett and the up and coming Cornelia Funke, they stir in a pot-pourri of samples and souvenirs from other works of literature, myths and forms of comedy. There's always a McGuffin, still.

Pratchett's latest is aimed younger than some of his Discworld series. Tiffany lives on the high chalk downs where fossils speak of an earlier era, and has second sight. Walking through a picture, as you do, she falls in with the Nac Mac Feegles, fighting fairies who try to use her to replace their dead queen. Other, less benign fairy-types, who represent the kind of fantasy that sucks reality dry, contend with them.

Pratchett's unique horse-sense ends by shoving everyone back in their boxes. The McGuffin? If all the contradictory fairy stories were true, what a laugh.

In Inkheart, young Meggie is plunged between worlds when the baddies, whom her father, nicknamed Silvertongue, has read out of a book, try to coerce him into reading out even worse villains. Missing is Meggie's mum, who has been switched back and forth from book to world. Funke manages her literary allusions well, seen through the mind of a child whose bag is packed only with books and whose aunt lives alone with a huge library.

Where Funke uses the McGuffin of "how real is a book?", Marcus Sedgwick ventures a bit further into human nature. His is a dystopian future in an unnamed city where magician Valerian exploits his boy assistant to try to escape a Faustian bargain. Action takes place in the dead days before Christmas - but that is not the McGuffin after all, though the whole narrative structure suggests it. Valerian tries to defeat the devil by sending Boy in his place, but that's not it either. You'll just have to read it for the twist.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today