It’s snowing in Gloucestershire and the wind is freezing, so this week I’m going to choose a book with a warm sounding title –  Jeanette Winterson’s `The Battle of the Sun’.  Winterson is renowned for her literary novels and memoirs but she also writes for children. This book,  published in 2009,  is a sequel to her children’s story `Tanglewreck’.  So why am I recommending the second book in a series rather than the first? Well, Winterson is an exciting writer because you never quite know what you are going to get from her. She reminds me of the sort of cook who tosses everything she likes or happens to have into the pot. The result will sometimes be delicious and sometimes disastrous. I felt that `Tanglewreck’ didn’t quite work but I loved `The Battle of the Sun’. You don’t need to have read the first story to enjoy the second, especially as they only have a few characters in common. `The Battle of the Sun’ should be easy to find in paperback or as an ebook.

This story is mainly set in London in 1601 but chapter titles such as `The Creature Sawn in Half’, `The Dragon Prepares a Bath’ and `The Truth about Sunflowers’ immediately  suggest that this is no ordinary historical novel. A boy called Jack Snap is kidnapped and taken to the Dark House, the home of a mind-reading Magus who wants a servant of `a very particular kind’.  The Magus practises Alchemy and thinks that Jack may have the special powers he needs to achieve his aim of turning the whole city into gold. Jack finds himself amongst a group of orphans who are forced to work for the Magus, spied on by a flying eye. He meets some strange inhabitants of this sunless house, such as a tiny boy called Crispin, a creature who is male on one side and female on the other, and a fish-scaled King kept in a water-tank. Meanwhile, Jack’s mother consults the sinister Madam Midnight in order to find her son but when she does the Magus works a cruel spell on her.

The imprisoned King warns Jack that the Magus’ greed will ruin the world if he isn’t stopped but the only way to do this is to find the Dragon deep beneath the house. Jack also discovers that there is another captive in the Dark House, a brave girl called Silver who comes from the 21st century. Jack and Silver seem fated to play the roles of  The Radiant Boy and The Golden Maiden described in the mysterious `Book of the Phoenix’.  Can they unite to defeat the Magus, help Jack’s mother, and save the city of London from a bizarre and terrible fate?

This story has several elements in common with a Young Adult novel I recommended last year – Catherine Fisher’s `The Obsidian Mirror’ . Both stories feature Alchemy, Time Travel, magical objects, mythical creatures and an obsessive quest for forbidden powers but they are very different books to read. Fisher is a disciplined writer who excels at creating complex, morally ambiguous characters and beautifully crafted plots. Winterson seems much more impulsive and intuitive. There is nothing subtle about her characterization but `The Battle of the Sun’ is full of wonderful Grotesques and vivid portraits of people who are either very good or very bad. Winterson writes convincingly from a child’s point of view and there is real intensity of feeling in Jack’s loving relationship with his mother.

For a literary novelist, Winterson is surprisingly good at keeping up the pace. The action fairly zips along and something extraordinary happens in nearly every scene. In the lead up to the big climax, the Battle of the Sun itself, Winterson throws all manner of people and things into her plot. There’s a pirate, a sinister abbess and an enigmatic knight, historical figures like Dr Dee and Queen Elizabeth I, a clock that controls Time, a cute dog, magical sunflower seeds and an entirely crucial coconut.

Winterson’s use of language is always freash and she has a glorious visual imagination. When she imagines something – like Elizabethan London slowly turning to gold – she really thinks it through, right down to details like a child being stuffed with treacle to produce golden turds. When  the Magus offers to get rid of all the filth and chaos of London and make Elizabeth I `the golden queen of a golden world’, she robustly retorts that she doesn’t mind filth and chaos because, `It is life.’ This may be a fantastical story but it angrily echoes the damage done in the modern City of London by the unchecked greed of bankers and developers.  In Winterson’s fictional world there is still hope that London can be saved by the generous in spirit and that `love is as strong as death’. Until next week…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.demon.co.uk

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