Archives for category: Young Adult Books

I think it is about time that I recommended something by Ursula Le Guin, who is one of the most respected figures in modern Fantasy and Science Fiction with a `World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement’ to prove it. Le Guin is a prolific author so it hasn’t been easy to choose just one of her books. I thought of picking `The Tombs of Atuan’, which I find the most interesting of her Earthsea novels, but this is very well known. So instead I’ve decided on `Gifts’ – the first in a loosely-linked trilogy known as the `Annals of the Western Shore’. The original hardback edition, published by Harcourt in 2004, is a handsome book in every way. Cheap paperback or ebook editions are also easy to find. In theory, `Gifts’ is a novel for teenagers but it refuses to follow most of the conventions of Young Adult fiction.

In the bleak northern Uplands live families who each have a special `gift’ which they can use to protect or enrich their domains. Some of these gifts, such as the power of female members of the Barre family to summon and control animals, seem benevolent enough. Others, such as the ability of the Geremant family to twist limbs or the Rodds to maim or kill with a spirit-knife, are dangerous and cruel. No wonder that the Lowlanders accuse Uplanders of being witches, even if they don’t quite believe all the stories about them.

Young Orrec is the only son of Canoc, the Brantor (leader) of Caspromant, whose gift is `undoing’. This terrible gift can destroy people, animals and things but Cannoc uses it to defend his domain from aggressive neighbours such as Ogge of Drummant, who has the sinister gift of `slow wasting’. Canoc’s wife, Melle, is a Lowlander with a talent for story-telling. Theirs is a very happy marriage but Canoc is anxious to know whether his son has inherited the Caspromant gift. Orrec enjoys watching his `cradle-friend’ Gry Barre use her gift to call animals but he has no desire to try destroying things with a look. Gry and Orrec seem made for each other but their families have other plans for them.

Canoc keeps testing his son. When Orrec is a teenager his gift does show itself but it seems to be `Wild’ – a power that cannot be controlled. After he loses his temper, Orrec has to wear a blindfold to stop him accidentally killing someone with a glance. He daren’t even look at his beloved mother or the dog who helps him to get around. As the threat from Ogge of Drummant increases, so does the pressure on Orrec to control his power. After a time of tragedy, it is Gry who helps Orrec to understand the extraordinary truth about his gift.

Novels for modern teenagers are expected to be fast-paced and action-packed. `Gifts’ is neither of these things and Le Guin doesn’t try to grab the reader’s attention with a dramatic opening. Instead, this thoughtful story begins with a long conversation, in which Orrec tries to explain the Upland way  of life to a sceptical Lowlander. You may feel that I’ve given rather a lot away in my synopsis but most of this plot information is revealed in the very first chapter. `Gifts’ doesn’t have a complicated plot and Le Guin disdains to build up suspense in an obvious way. What she does do is establish an air of menace and cleverly needle the reader into asking lots of questions about Orrec and Gry’s strange situation.

If Le Guin’s work is more admired than loved it may be because she always seems in total control of her material, using her immaculate prose to create new worlds with the minimum of fuss. This story isn’t cluttered by masses of background detail but the Uplands, with their bleak mountains, feuding clans and men in kilts, have a vaguely Scottish feel. The fact that Le Guin’s parents were anthropologists may account for her special talent for inventing convincing cultures and societies. She has obviously put much thought into how the Brantors’ powers, and the fear they evoke, would influence the hierarchy within domains and the interaction between domains. She describes a society living with a balance of terror and the effect is chilling. It is quiet Gry who works out how the original powers may have been distorted. This challenges every reader to think about whether they have misused any of the gifts they were born with. An uncomfortable question.

The narrative voice in `Gifts’ is that of Orrec, so the reader is forced to share his blindness for much of the novel. Le Guin often writes about very unconventional family groups but the Caspromant family has deceptive air of normality. Orrec has a tempestuous but always plausible relationship with his father, full of anger, resentment and guilt. For much of the book it is hard to tell whether Orrec has a real grievance, or if he’s just being a typical teenager refusing to make an effort because he’s afraid of failing to meet his parents’ expectations. Fantasy fiction isn’t generally big on mother-son relationships but there is an outstanding one in `Gifts’. Melle is touchingly portrayed as a woman who deeply loves both her husband and her son but feels unable to intervene in their dispute about a power she cannot comprehend. What she can do is to teach Orrec to read and write and leave a him a legacy of stories and poems.

Melle’s stories aren’t factual but they contain the kind of truths that people can live by. The power of stories and poems to enrich individuals and sustain or even change whole civilizations is explored throughout `The Annals of the Western Shore’. In Volume Two – `Voices’ (which has a different narrator and setting) you can follow Orrec and Grys into a conquered city where the Taliban-like new rulers drown people for possessing books. Le Guin’s fantasies always have strong connections to the real world. If you are looking for a story with lasting resonance, try `Gifts’. Until next time….





This week I’m recommending Joan Aiken’s `The Stolen Lake’, which is probably the only Arthurian Fantasy to be set in the Andes. Joan Aiken (1924-2004) was a daughter of the American poet, Conrad Aiken but she was born and brought up in England. `The Stolen Lake’ was first published in 1981, with murky illustrations by Pat Marriott. There are recent paperback editions and it’s also available as an ebook. Aiken wrote in many different genres for readers of all ages. `The Stolen Lake’ is part of a twelve-volume sequence of children’s novels featuring Cockney girl, Dido Twite, a heroine who was feisty long before it was fashionable. This sequence is sometimes known as `The Wolves Chronicles’ and sometimes as `The Wolves of Willoughby Chase Series’. Chronologically, `The Stolen Lake’ is the fourth of these novels but Aiken pointed out in a preface that `you don’t need to have read any of the others to understand it.’ I’ve chosen this book because it is my favourite of the Dido stories and the one with the strongest Fantasy element.

`The Wolves Chronicles’ are set in the early 19th century in a world in which the Ancient Romans conquered South America and the Stuart Dynasty still rules Britain. When this story opens, twelve year-old Dido has recently left North America after thwarting a dastardly Hanoverian plot against the Stuarts (see `Night Birds on Nantucket’). She is travelling home in a British warship called the `Thrush’. Dido tries to keep out of the way of crusty Captain Hughes but enjoys the company of his remarkably well-educated steward, Mr Holystone. Captain Hughes suddenly gets orders to change course for Roman America where Britain’s ally, Queen Ginevra of New Cumbria, requires assistance. Hearing that the Queen is `devotedly Fond of Young Female Children’, Captain Hughes decides to include Dido in the party from the `Thrush’ who will travel to New Cumbria’s remote capital, Bath Regis.

When Dido is kidnapped on her first day ashore, it  becomes apparent that New Cumbria is a very dangerous place, especially for young girls. She escapes and is helped to rejoin her friends by a mysterious minstrel called Bran. During the unpleasant trip to the capital, Dido and the Captain rely on the advice of Mr Holystone, who was brought up in nearby Hy Brasil, but as they approach Bath Regis, Holystone grows weak and forgetful and falls into a trance. Dido and Captain Hughes visit the revolving palace of the `White Queen’ and are told two very strange things. Firstly, the Queen claims to be thirteen hundred years old and secondly she insists that a neighbouring monarch, Mabon of Lyonesse, has stolen the sacred lake which the Cumbrians brought with them from Britain. Queen Ginevra is convinced that one day her husband Arthur, the once and future king, will return to her from Lake Arianrhod, so she will stop at nothing to get it back. She wants Dido to pretend to be King Mabon’s lost daughter and persuade him to return the stolen lake. When Captain Hughes protests he is thrown into prison, so Dido and her companions have no choice but to set out on a perilous journey through steaming quagmires and icy mountains. On the way, Dido will encounter man-eating birds, evil witches, a crazed priest and a captive princess. She will discover the terrible truth about how Ginevra has stayed alive so long, and seeing an old friend in a new light will nearly break Dido’s heart.

`The Stolen Lake’ is fast-paced enough to appeal to modern children – something thrilling or astonishing happens every few pages – but there is plenty in the novel to interest adults as well. Aiken loved to create extraordinary plots bursting with inventive details, such as the secret of how to steal a whole lake or a series of frantic messages  written on pages from Dr Johnson’s Dictionary and attached to the collars of copper-coloured cats. She threw together some elements you might expect to find in a South American setting, such as llamas, piranhas, human sacrifice and erupting volcanoes and some that you probably wouldn’t, like Roman legionaries, supernatural owls, sedan-chairs and a Snow Leopard. It could be said that all the books in `The Wolves Chronicles’ have a basic `plucky children defeat forces of evil’ plotline but thanks to the astringent qualty of the writing, they come across as being about isolated children struggling to survive in a largely wicked world. Some innocent characters meet grim deaths in `The Stolen Lake’ and even love is shown to have its dark side. Queen Ginevra/Guinevere is not a romantic figure in this story. Surrounded by spiders and shrunken heads and almost too fat to walk, she has become grotesquely unlovable by the time her Arthur returns.

Like last week’s author (Avram Davidson), Aiken had great fun rearranging history and myth to suit her own passions and prejudices. The England of her novels is inhabited by Dickensian villains and Gothic horrors, such as the packs of wolves who have entered the country through an early version of the Channel Tunnel. Aiken came up with an ingenious explanation for her Celtic kingdoms in the Andes (after all there really was a Welsh settlement in Patagonia) and boldly relocated the civilised town of Bath Spa to a chilly hollow surrounded by smoking volcanoes, and its ancient goddess Sul to a sinister mountain-top temple. The White Queen’s revolving silver palace is borrowed from Celtic myth and there is even a guest appearance by the Thirteen Treasures of Britain and the Four Oldest Creatures from `The Mabinogion’ (see my post of November 2012). Fans of Arthurian literature will enjoy spotting Aiken’s versions of the traditional characters. Truth-telling Bran, with his wooden leg, harp and cockatoo, is as wild and unpredictable as the prophet Merlin in Early Welsh legend. The puzzling stories that he tells to Dido add an extra dimension to the novel.

Much of the humour in the book comes from the contrast between the formal speech of the officers of the `Thrush’ (e.g.`Miss Twite- I must delay no longer in telling you how creditable – exceedingly creditable indeed – are the accounts of your behaviour during this expedition that I have received…) and Dido’s unconventional but colourful use of language (e.g. `Jemima! What a havey-cavey cove. He looks as if he’d sell his own ma for cats’ meat.’) There are also some pleasingly absurd situations, such as tomboy Dido (`Needle-work’s a mug’s game!’) being taught to curtsey and forced to dress like a court lady (`I don’t half look a sight’). Dido is charmingly unimpressed by wealth and grandeur; she thinks the Queen’s silver palace `looks like an outsize milk-churn.’ She’s a brave and resourceful heroine but she has a tough time in this book.  It’s not just that she keeps getting kidnapped. Dido has been carelessly brought up as an unloved youngest child in a dishonest and disfunctional family but she finally finds a suitable father-figure in the wise and kind Mr Holystone. Then a spell makes him forget all about her. Nothing is quite the same again and Dido disovers that relationships can go on causing pain long after they are broken. This  gives the story greater depth than some of the other books in the series, but  writing about `The Stolen Lake’ has made me want to reread the entire `Wolves Chronicles’.  I’ll be back in two weeks time.


This week I’m recommending `Lord of the Changing Winds’, the first volume in a trilogy by American author, Rachel Neumeier. It came out in 2010 and is available in paperback or as an ebook. If you like the sound of this one, I’d suggest getting the paperback which contains all three volumes under the title of `The Griffin Mage Trilogy’. Neumeier writes for both adults and young adults. `Lord of the Changing Winds’  was published as a novel for adults but might also appeal to patient teenagers – if there are any.

`Lord of the Changing Winds’  is set in a world divided into small realms whose rulers are served by powerful mages. Contrary to the blurb, the novel tells the story of two people – a shy teenage girl called Kes and a young nobleman called Bertaud. Kes, who has some natural skill as a healer, lives with her older sister, Tesme in the village of Minas Ford. She is thrilled by the rare sight  of griffins flying overhead but griffins are creatures of fire who bring the desert with them. A stranger who calls himself  Kairaithin asks Kes to go with him to heal his people. She perceives that he isn’t human but lets him take her. Kes finds herself among a host of wounded griffins who have been driven out of their homeland by the Cold Mages of Casmantium. Kairaithin himself is Lord of the Changing Winds and the only surviving Griffin Mage. He has no ability to heal but he is able to tranform Kes into a Fire Mage. She consents to use her new power to heal the Griffin King, the Lord of Fire and Air, and all the other wounded griffins but discovers that she is the Griffin Mage’s prisoner.

Kes fails to return home and more and more of the land close to Minas Ford is turned into desert by the presence of the griffins. The villagers ask their king, Iaor of Feierabiand, for help. He decides to send troops and an Earth Mage to drive out the griffins but puts his best friend Lord Bertaud in charge. The expedition ends in disaster when the Earth Mage refuses to negotiate with the Griffin Mage and Bertaud fails to trust his own judgement. Kes has felt at home among the griffins but she is horrified to see them killing humans. After healing the wounded Bertaud, Kes runs away from Kairaithin but is captured by the Casmantiums and their Cold Mage, Beguchren. She learns that driving out the griffins was just the first step in a plan of conquest by the ambitious King of Casmantium. Rescue comes from an unexpected quarter, but Kes still fears being used as a weapon. Meanwhile, Bertaud risks losing his king’s friendship and being branded as traitor, when he tries to forge an alliance between Feierabiand and griffin-kind. In the end he is faced with a terrible choice – should he use a power he knows to be wrong in order to save his country?

Some Fantasy novels are admirable for the same reasons as ordinary novels – they may be beautifully written or tell a particularly compelling story. `Lord of the Changing Winds’ however excels at something which only Fantasy and Science Fiction do – the creation of convincing non-human characters. This book is worth reading for the griffins alone. There are hundreds of Fantasy novels about dragons but only a few which give griffins the leading role. One of the human characters in `Lord of the Changing Winds’ describes a griffin as, `Half lion, half eagle, and all killer!’ For much of the story we see the griffins from a human point of view as terrifying metallic monsters who can tear men to pieces with their talons and reduce fertile land to desert with their fiery winds. When Kes and Bertaud become involved with the griffins, we begin to see them in a different light, as beautiful and intelligent creatures who value courage and are fiercely proud. The desert that is so deadly to humans is `a garden that blooms with time and silence’ to the griffins. Kes is adopted as a little sister by one of the female griffins, Opailikiita Sehanaka Kiistaike (all the griffins have splendidly complex names) but these `wild, brilliant-hearted griffins’ always retain a sense of `otherness’ which makes their actions excitingly unpredictable. As the young Fire Mage becomes increasingly  griffin-like herself, she understands more about the human nature that she is giving up.

Some readers have given up on this trilogy because they don’t like Kes, finding her too passive, timid and unemotional. Neumeier has bravely chosen to write about a girl who in our world would probably be labelled as having Asperger Syndrome. Frail Kes is one of life’s outsiders who finds it difficult to understand other people’s feelings or behave according to their expectations. She isn’t fashionably feisty but her behaviour felt more real to me than that of the standard Fantasy heroine who instantly accepts her superpowers and gets on with saving the world. Kes is painfully slow to adjust to her new role and when she is captured by an experienced Mage and a lot of big strong men she doesn’t slash and burn her way out, she’s just sensibly scared. What Kes does do is to think very carefully about the implications of her powers, She starts making her own choices and bravely standing up to the kings and mages who want to exploit her. Kairaithin’s decision to turn Kes into a Fire Mage is crucial to the plot of the entire trilogy but she isn’t a viewpoint character throughout the series. Each volume has different central characters, who provide a new perspective on the people (and griffins) we’ve already met. If Kes doesn’t appeal to you, the heroine of the second volume is a brilliant `Maker’ who specializes in engineering. There aren’t many female engineers in real life and even fewer in Fantasy novels.

The `Griffin Mage Trilogy’ may look like Epic Fantasy but the battles are relatively small scale and Neumeier is more interested in peace-makers than warmongers. One of the things I like best about these books is the lack of stereotyped villains. In `Lord of the Changing Winds’ the Casmantiums are the aggressors and the griffins appear to be injured (though still lethal) innocents, but the Casmantiums are not some evil horde. In Volume Two, the engaging leading characters are both from Casmantium and we see the sufferings inflicted on ordinary people by the continuing war with the griffins. Even Beguchren, the Cold Mage who can kill with ice, shows a more sensitive and vulnerable side in this part of the story. He’s still focused on destroying the enemies of his king and country though. Only those who can see beyond narrow patriotism to a greater good have a chance of stopping the escalating conflicts. A theme running throughout the trilogy is the importance of trusting  people with the freedom to make their own decisions, even if you may not like the result. The plot of `Lord of the Changing Winds’ is full of difficult moral choices, so if you like your Fantasy to be subtle and complex, this could be the trilogy for you. Until next week…..


Now that it’s really hot, I’m recommending a cool book. `North Child’ by Edith Pattou even has a polar bear on the cover. It was first published in America in 2003 under the title `East’. In either name, this Young Adult novel is available in paperback, on Nook, or in a luxury hardback edition. To keep things simple, I’ll stick to the European title. `North Child’ is based on one of my favourite folktales, the hauntingly named `East of the Sun and West of the Moon’, which is the Norse version of Beauty and the Beast. For once, this is a story which isn’t part of a series.

Arne, a map-maker turned farmer lives with his family in 16th century Norway. Arne’s wife, Eugenia is a very superstitious woman who believes that a baby’s character is shaped by the direction the mother is facing during the birth. Eugenia has been warned by a seer that if she has a north-born, the child will be doomed to a horrible death under ice and snow. When the couple’s eighth and last child is born, they name her Ebba (East) Rose but she is really a North Child (hence the alternate titles for the book). Little Rose has the restless energy of the north-born and is always getting into mischief. Only her devoted brother Neddy knows that Rose was once saved from drowning by a white bear. Rosa turns out to have a rare talent for weaving and sewing but it isn’t enough to stop her family slipping into poverty. By the time Rose is fifteen, the family is about to be evicted from their home and her older sister, Sara, is very sick.

Then an enormous white bear comes to the house. He promises that Sara will be cured and the family will become prosperous again if Arne and Eugenia give him their youngest daughter. Arne and Neddy are horrified but Rose, who has only just learned that she is a North Child, insists on going with the bear. He carries her across the sea to his home inside a mountain, where the only servants are two strange creatures who may be Trolls. Even though the bear is rarely able to speak, Rose comes to enjoy his company, but every night a silent being shares her bed. Rose instinctively knows that she mustn’t touch, speak to or look at this strange visitor, but after she is allowed a visit home, her curiosity gets the better of her. Too late, Rose discovers that her bear was an enchanted prince  and she has just lost the chance to free him from a cruel spell. Now he is doomed to marry the Troll Queen, unless Rose can follow him to the ends of the earth and find the icy castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon.

The combination of polar bear, compass and young girl on the cover of `North Child’ is bound to remind Fantasy readers of  Philip Pullman’s `Northern Lights’ (otherwise known as `The Golden Compass’). Pattou’s book is far less original than Pullman’s trilogy about Lyra and her ice-bear companion, but it is also gentler and more coherent. The coherence comes from following the outline of the original folktale, East of the Sun and West of the Moon, which itself echoes the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche (see my post of 6th March 2013 on `Till We Have Faces’). Like the myth, this folktale is all about testing faith and endurance and it has a typically strong Scandinavian heroine. The prince is helpless for most of the plot and has to wait for the farmer’s daughter to rescue him. Pattou sets her version of the story in Norway, France, and Greenland and she’s brilliant at describing cold northern landscapes. She’s also an author you can trust to know all about traditional looms, Viking ships, Inuit story-telling knives, or the sense of smell of polar bears.

Pattou turns the simple characters of folktale into more complicated people. Rose has fallible parents and a diverse group of siblings while the hags who help the original heroine are transformed into a generous French widow, a drunken sea captain and an Inuit shaman. There are still supernatural elements but Pattou’s beautiful, sophisticated and cruel Trolls are very different from the stupid brutes familiar from Fantasy novels such as `The Hobbit’ or `Troll Fell’. While Rose is living with the white bear every comfort is provided by magic but during her travels, Rose learns how to do all sorts of practical things, from making three shining dresses to navigating a ship, paddling a kyak to mending reindeer-harness.  She realizes that life is more complicated without magic but also more satisfying. I was delighted to find that there is still a shirt-washing contest at the climax of the story. How often do you come across that in a Fantasy novel?

Some readers have complained that `North Child’ isn’t as intense as other Young Adult romances. One of the reasons for this is that the story is told by five different voices including Rosa’s father, Arne, and her scholarly brother Neddy. These two aren’t the most exciting of narrators but they do cover the changing fortunes of Rose’s family while she is away. More original are the voices of the white bear, who struggles to retain any memory of his human life, and the Troll Queen, who obsessively loves her captive prince. The selfish Queen is determined to make him love her back, even if she has to destroy his identity to do it. Rose may seem cool but her slow-burn feelings run deep. She literally gives her prince space and refuses to place him under any obligation to marry his rescuer. That seems like true love to me. Until next week…