Worlds apart

14th April 2006 at 01:00
Huw Thomas takes a trip through the magical, mythical and fantasy kingdoms waiting to welcome readers in upper primary and beyond


By Cornelia Funke

The Chicken House pound;12.99

Fire Star

By Chris d'Lacey

Orchard Books pound;10.99

The Companions Quartet Book One: The Secret of the Sirens

By Julia Golding

Oxford University Press pound;8.99

The Flowing Queen

The Stone Light

By Kai Meyer

Egmont pound;5.99 each

The Time Apprentice

By Val Tyler

Puffin pound;10.99


By Cat Weatherill

Puffin pound;5.99 pbk


By Cat Weatherill

Puffin pound;9.99

Septimus Heap series

Book One: Magyk

By Angie Sage

Bloomsbury pound;6.99 pbk

Book Two: Flyte

By Angie Sage

Bloomsbury pound;12.99

Magical and fantasy stories are like the number 97 bus. When they appear, it's usually in threes (sometimes fours). Inkspell, the middle book in Cornelia Funke's trilogy, enters the story world we glimpsed in the first book, Inkheart. The fairytale world is intricately drawn and we feel we ought to know it, but it unnerves us with its princely conflicts and mercenary gangs, drawing us into a vivid and menacing journey.

Where Inkspell is in a world of its own, Fire Star (which follows The Fire Within and Icefire to conclude a trilogy about David Rain and his adventures among dragons) makes a fantasy world out of real-life Arctic wastes. For fantasy stories to work there has to be a gulf between the fantasy world and our own, and it must be worth bridging. D'Lacey's reality is that of an Arctic community where polar bears are both mystic creatures and threats. Meanwhile, his dragons originate and live in a regular, domestic setting.

Julia Golding's The Secret of the Sirens, the first novel in a quartet, also brings mythical creatures home to a modern setting (future books will focus on the gorgon, the minotaur and the chimera). Mystical child Connie finds herself in a closed Dartmoor community that guards the sirens. These mythic creatures, who lure innocents with their singing, are threatened by the expansion of a local oil refinery, and it is the book's exploration of the battle between human progress and environmental interests that gives it its complex morality. It is also a dialogue-fuelled story readily accessible to readers in Years 5 and 6, with a temptation scene at its heart that crackles with tension.

Kai Meyer's The Stone Light, the second book in a trilogy that begins with The Flowing Queen, remains in this world but finds fantastic regions within it. Like Philip Pullman, Meyer uses heavy doses of religious imagery, recounting a descent into Hell and an encounter with its ruler, in a book that will raise religious hackles. From a Christian perspective, I found its challenge to be like the subtle questions of a fellow traveller. The result is a disarming quest and a story of great passion and humour, as the central character, Merle, is possessed by the voice of a bossy queen and opposes a caddish bounder of a Pharaoh, on a journey that spices thoughtfulness with excitement. These first two books need to be read in order, and they leave us crying out for volume three.

Another second of three titles, The Time Apprentice, presents an original and delightful take on the encounter between this and other worlds; namely that we live alongside another world but we just don't see it. Val Tyler's story explores what happens when two interwoven worlds clash and, without being preachy, tackles the prejudices that can infect parallel communities.

You can read it without knowing its preceding title, The Time Wreccas, but I reckon Apprentice will send most readers back to the earlier book.

Anyone creating a fantasy world has to create something different and Cat Weatherill certainly does this: wooden people hatch from eggs, grapple with slavery in various forms and find shelter with circus folk and pirates.

"You're making this up," says the eponymous central character in Snowbone.

"Kings. Wicked Stepmothers. How stupid do you think we are? This is a fairy tale." Readers share the joke, beginning with the tale of Barkbelly, the wooden boy adopted by mortals, and his quest to find his birth family.

There is a gentle connection between Barkbelly and Snowbone, but the tales can stand alone. They appeal to the reader's emotions, pitching genuinely loveable characters into dazzling worlds. There is a gentle politics to these stories of cruelty and oppression and considerable beauty in their telling. Here is fantasy with a child's voice, written by a performing storyteller so that they read like told tales, with sentences that slip into poetry and sound effects that bring the pages to life.

Angie Sage's first Septimus Heap stories, Magyk and Flyte, conjure up another world apart. They read like textbooks for the art of magic; rich with spells, rules, special objects and places. Location is particularly important, and the maps in the books are more than decoration. I wanted to put the map in Magyk on the classroom wall. Sage navigates her complex setting with suspenseful and well structured plotlines. The twist in Magyk sent me back to re-reading chunks of the story with added appreciation.

These books open an array of dazzling worlds. It's worth hopping aboard this bus, and I'm eagerly waiting at the stop.

Huw Thomas is head of Emmaus primary school, Sheffield

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