Cornelia Funke is sometimes called “Germany’s answer to J K Rowling,” which is more telling than helpful (doesn’t every country want to have an answer to J K Rowling?). You’ll find plenty of magic in her books, as well as at least one boarding school, many loyal friends, loathsome bullies, mythical creatures both traditional and new-made, and some truly sinister villains – but all in quite different settings and configurations. Before turning to writing full-time, Funke was a children’s social worker and then an illustrator, and perhaps that shows in her resourceful, resilient child heroes and heroines, and in her illustrator’s eye for detail and ability to build a scene.
Igraine in Igraine the Brave is certainly resourceful, and needs to be so when an unfortunate coincidence finds her magician parents transformed into pigs, just as the ruthless and rapacious Osmund takes over the neighbouring castle and lays siege to Castle Pimpernel, Igraine’s family home, on her twelfth birthday. Igraine not only needs to outwit Sir Osmund, liberate the fastest horse in his stable and charm a giant in order to obtain the remedy for her parents’ enchantment, but also cheer up the Sorrowful Knight, ignore her elder brother’s teasing and stop her cat Sisyphus from catching the mercenaries transformed into fish in the castle’s magical moat. A funny, feisty story, especially recommended for overlooked younger children and girls with more than a gleam of knight at heart.
Magical creatures approach the everyday world in Dragon Rider, which finds a colony of dragons in hiding in a remote Scottish valley. Their sleepy existence is shattered when they discover that humans plan to build a dam and flood the valley: they have to find a safe new home. Young dragon Firedrake is chosen to find a mythical refuge in the distant valley known as the Rim of Heaven. Along the way, he gathers a strange assortment of travelling companions: a grumpy brownie, a lonely boy, a friendly archaeologist – but also a tiny spy for the cruel, invincible dragon-monster Nettlebrand who is determined to destroy all other dragons. Nettlebrand’s threat is always close, and the dragon refuge seems impossibly remote, but the real charm of Dragon Rider is Ben’s astonishment and delight at the marvellous world he discovers – of elves, sea-serpents and djinn – as he rides across continents on Firedrake’s back.
The Thief Lord was probably the book that made Funke’s reputation internationally, an irresistible, atmospheric mystery-cum-thriller in which two young orphans and runaways escape to Venice, and are adopted by a gang of waifs living in an abandoned cinema. This is definitely not picture-postcard Venice: brothers Prosper and Bo are on the run in winter from the odious aunt and uncle who want to adopt angelic-looking Bo but send Prosper away to an unthinkable boarding school. The run-down cinema is the perfect hiding-place, and they soon meet the gang’s mysterious and charismatic leader, the Thief Lord – a boy not much older than themselves, but whose midnight exploits seemingly keep them all in money and food and comics too. Then the gang takes on one particularly mysterious and improbably well-paid job, and the plates of reality and fantasy shift: a lost artefact has the power to give the Thief Lord and his client what they most want. Could it offer Prosper and Bo an escape, too?
After the acclaim for The Thief Lord came the even greater success of the Inkheart trilogy (the first book also made a very watchable film with a 24-carat cast, including Helen Mirren as an imperious Aunt Elinor, Jim Broadbent as a vain but ultimately redeemable Fenoglio and Andy Serkis as a chummily creepy Capricorn). Twelve-year-old Meggie adores her father but doesn’t remember her mother. One night, father Mo has a visitor, the oddly-named and scar-faced traveller Dustfinger, who seems to know more about Meggie’s past than she does; the next day, they are all fleeing for their lives from the man called Capricorn. Meggie learns about “silvertongues” – readers who can genuinely bring stories alive, although at a cost – and discovers how Dustfinger and Capricorn’s appearance in the real world relates to her mother’s disappearance. Gradually, inexorably, Capricorn draws Meggie and Mo into his trap, as well as the hapless author Fenoglio. Capricorn plans to stay in the real world, and draw on the sinister forces of the Inkworld to build his power there; and for that, he needs a Silvertongue… Over three books, the Inkworld and its characters become ever richer, darker and more complex: one of the most compelling of fantasy worlds, and a powerful fable about reading, writing and the power of imagining.
With Reckless (see below), Funke seems to have found and thoroughly explored another world at least as compelling as the Inkworld. In an interval, she somehow found the time to write Ghost Knight, a school story set firmly in the present day (and distant past) of Salisbury Cathedral , its choir and school – allowing for a few liberties taken with the school, which is as I understand a much cosier and friendlier place than the Ghost Knight version. Jon, bitterly resentful of his mother’s new partner “The Beard”, is sent reluctantly away from home to board at the Cathedral school. On his very first night, he sees a terrifying apparition and is soon in fear of his life. His schoolmates don’t share his ghostly visions, and only new friend Ella believes him or has any idea how to help him, along with her eccentric ghost-tour-guide grandmother. I have to say that as a picky adult, I didn’t find this as satisfying as Funke’s books for older children (I would suggest it for 8+) – it is certainly gripping and atmospheric, but for me there were more coincidences and improbabilities that I could comfortably swallow. However, less hairsplitting young readers with a taste for a pacy story and a few chills may well disagree with me; and if it’s hard to warm to resentful Jon, his fearless friend Ella is a delight.
Funke has said that she can imagine writing about the Mirrorworld, the world of Reckless and its just-published sequel Fearless, for many books to come. Reckless opens with Jacob Reckless venturing into his father’s study one night as a boy, a year after his father’s disappearance, and discovering the mirror through which he can step between worlds like Alice… although the Mirrorworld is a far more vicious and dangerous place than Looking-Glass World ever was. Twelve years later, Jacob has made a precarious living in the Mirrorworld as a treasure hunter, spending more time there than in his own world, and is preternaturally aged and hardened by his experiences. Then, one night, his younger brother Will follows him into the Mirrorworld, and a moment’s lapse leads to an attack by the Goyl, the stone-men, and a terrible curse. Will is gradually turning to stone himself – to the jade which should make the Goyl king invincible, but which makes Will both less and less human and a prized bounty to anyone who captures him. Jacob has to embark on an impossible quest to break the curse, and at unimaginable cost.
Every now and then, the bleached bones of a familiar fairy tale appear in the Mirrorworld – but this is a world where no prince ever arrived to wake the sleeping princess, where the woods are full of murderous trees, poisonous plants and other nightmares, and the towns seethe with crooks and traitors. Jacob and Will’s names are no coincidence – Reckless has at its heart the darkness of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and other European folktales before they were ever tamed for children. Highly recommended for the imaginative, fantasy-minded reader of 12+.
For anyone wanting to learn more about Cornelia Funke and her books, I can also recommend the full-of-surprises website, www.corneliafunke.com