On the wild side;Children's books

8th January 1999 at 00:00
THE FATAL STRAND. By Robin Jarvis. Collins pound;12.99. BEYOND THE DEEPWOODS. By Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. Doubleday pound;10.99. THE RELIC MASTER. By Catherine Fisher. Bodley Head pound;10.99.

Tony Blair recently included Robin Jarvis's Tales from the Wyrd Museum in his list of Books to Grow Up With (most of his recommendations were fantasies, but there you go). The Fatal Strand is the final volume in the Wyrd Museum trilogy and, throughout its 500-plus pages,it sustains the frenetic pace and wild plotting of the earlier books.

The book is addictive in a way so many able young readers love - you're swept along on a torrent of a story, gulping its extravagant language, mixing your metaphors and relishing every noun loaded with adjectives you've never heard of and never will again ("fuliginous", "horrisonous"). The crescendos of action are extraordinary - maelstroms of alliteration, inverted sentence structures, the action slipping this way and that.

The very fabric of the museum building is crazily sliding from one era to another, even as the characters race from room to room. Urdr, the last of the three Fates who wove the fateful pattern of Destiny, is crushed beneath the crumbling Yggdrasill itself, her lover-enemy Woden clasped in her arms. The great loom made from the tree is smashed as the Norse epic works out its thunderous climax.

Jarvis holds the whole shifting kaleidoscope together by underpinning with two established mythologies - Norse and Christian - and by counterpointing the melodrama with the two children at the centre of things, who are comically down-to-earth city kids. Exhausting for the adult, but exhilarating for the right young reader.

Very little underpins Beyond the Deepwoods, which is announced as the first of the Edge Chronicles. This is a zap-'em-up computer game in book format. Our hero, Twig, tangles with one monster after another on his quest, which is so ill-defined that there is littletension. There are no other, older stories beneath the present adventure (as there are in all absorbing fantasies), and the encounters with the creatures of the Deepwoods (hover worms, halitoads, hummelhorns and the like) do not build towards anything.

There is a good deal of burping, bad breath, ooze, slime, squelching and spittle and characters like the "bulging" Grossmother, "sloshing and slewing like a sackful of oil", presumably because the author and illustrator believe children like that stuff. It is an easy enough read, which may well help some reluctant or computer-bound readers into managing a whole book, but there are few satisfactions beyond that.

The Relic Master, again a first volume in a new sequence (The Book of The Crow), stands at the other end of the narrative spectrum from Robin Jarvis's extravaganza. The telling is as spare and taut, the theme as elemental, as a Border ballad. There is pain, loss, and treachery. Skill in arms or sorcery is as hard-won as in Ursula le Guin's Earthsea.

The keeper, Galen, and his young pupil, Raffi, are on a quest through a chilling landscape, their aim being to restore Galen's powers as a Relic Master. The stakes are high since the Keepers of the Relics, guardians of an older way of life, have been almost eliminated by the sinister Watch.

The two are tracked by Carys, a young woman trained as a killer and steeped in the ideology of the Watch (we are privy to her thoughts, and then her doubts, through excerpts from her journals).

Our perspective shifts again as we see Keepers and Watch - both descendants of the colonising Makers, who arrived in their silver spaceships long ago -through the eyes of the gentle, story-loving Sekoi, the indigenous creatures of the planet. The excitement is relentless, the balance of values convincing. Readers will be hungry for the next episode.

Geoff Fox

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