It feels all wrong to be reading Marcus Sedgwick in the sun, like drinking mulled wine in August or eating Eton Mess in November. Serves me right, I suppose, for structuring this blog along lazy alphabetical lines; but I find I am also being timely and topical (ha!) as Segdwick’s Midwinterblood is shortlisted for this year’s Carnegie Medal, with the overall winner to be announced this coming Thursday. (It seems to me to be rather a vintage year, with Sedgwick up against R. J. Palacio’s Wonder, which you may recall I shared with you in the “issues” post, as well as Sally Gardner’s bleakly brilliant Maggot Moon, which already has a Costa prize to its name. I’m also keeping an eye out for Nick Lake’s extraordinary In Darkness, and Elizabeth Wein’s brilliantly tense Codename Verity.)
There are, it’s fair to say, not many puppies in Marcus Sedgwick’s oeuvre, and not many fields of daisies either, nor apple-cheeked moppets nor twinkling grandpas. No-one is going to ask Sedgwick to style an aspirational kids’ clothing catalogue or script a jam commercial any time soon. The nights are long and cold, and the days are full of snow, ice and mist. For every spirited hero and heroine, there are countless frauds and shysters, goons and scavengers and some truly scary villains – and those are just the human adversaries. In the shadows, in the corners, between the trees and under the ground there are plenty of other, hungrier, less reasonable things. Brilliantly, Sedgwick spins out different strands of dark theatre: for 9+ readers and teens, there are a dozen atmospheric novels set around the world (or the older and chillier parts of it) and through the ages, real and imagined – some standalone, some inspiring sequels. For younger readers, there’s the irresistible high camp Gothic of the Raven Mysteries, and the more recent Elf Girl and Raven Boy, replete with trolls and ogres and witches and other things that go bump (and sometimes also “Ouch!”) in the night: also atmospheric, yes, but with loads more laughs.
I wrote briefly about the six-book Raven Mysteries in my suggestions for Life After Beast Quest, which is precisely when my now-10-year-old first met and instantly loved them. The Otherhand family of Otherhand Castle are unmistakably related to both the Addams Family and the Groans of Gormenghast: there is wild-eyed inventor Lord Valevine, his commandingly eccentric wife Minty and their four children: Goth girl Solstice, nervous little brother Cudweed with his unspeakable monkey Fellah, and the infant twins Fizz and Buzz who are not much less of a liability. There’s an ancient granny, an even more venerable nanny and a host of other ancient retainers – or newer ones who don’t last terribly long. Kitchen maids come to alarmingly sudden and sticky ends, and schoolmasters come and go faster than nervous supply teachers. The real genius of the Raven Mysteries, though, is in being told by Solstice’s pet and the family mascot, the elderly, superior and self-regarding raven Edgar (“Is my beak wonky? This is a question which vexes me more and more these days…”), a hilariously deadpan guide to the family’s foibles. Valevine’s inventions, it goes without saying, are splendidly useless – until they turn out to be life-saving; Minty’s money-making schemes are invariably doomed; the family treasure is legendary but lost – for the time being… Pete Williamson’s wide-eyed, ink-dripping illustrations are a perfect fit, and combine with well-spaced print to make the books approachable for the newly-confident reader of say 7+, without putting off the fantasy-minded 9+. As Edgar would say: Rark!
The Sedgwick-Williamson partnership continues through Elf Girl and Raven Boy, which begins in the middle of the night in a deep, dark forest – and I’m not going to tell you it lightens up after that because, thankfully, it doesn’t. As a rampaging ogre topples the tress around them, Raven Boy (who can see in the dark, and talk to animals) is thrown together with Elf Girl (who has a wicked tongue and a magic bow that, unfortunately, she doesn’t quite know how to use). As they escape hungry (and increasingly angry) trolls, and seek the notorious Witch who Knows Everything, the real question is: can they stop bickering for long enough to find Elf Girl’s vanished family and discover what it is that’s making the ogre rampage? Another spooky treat for 7+ – personally I do miss Edgar, but I may say the junior reading panel here have been clawing the first three Elf Girl and Raven Boy volumes from each other as ferally as anything in the books.
Sedgwick made his name originally as a writer of dark, intelligent stories for older children and young adults. In 2001, Floodland won the prestigious Branford Boase award for first-time authors for children (recent winners include Annabel Pitcher for My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, also featured in the “issues” post) with a haunting vision of a climate-change-flooded world. Zoe, separated from her parents, scrapes a living in the island that used to be Norwich – until her desperate fellow islanders discover her secret, the old rowing boat that she has secretly rescued and made seaworthy. Pursued by a mob, Zoe takes to the sea, and is washed up on the diminishing Island of Eels with its wrecked cathedral. There she finds a starving band, even more desperate than in Norwich, in thrall to the charismatic gangleader Dooby – but also the otherworldy William with his wisdom and madness, perception and poetry. The island offers plenty of cruelty and fear, but also hope and the unlikeliest friendships. Zoe is convinced that her parents must still be alive, but will she ever escape the island and find her way to them?
Floodland was followed by more brilliantly explored fantasy: Witch Hill, with a contemporary hero inexorably drawn into a seventeenth-century witch-hunt; The Dark Horse, vividly set in a Viking community (Scandinavia? Scotland?) with a child raised by wolves and a sinister shipwrecked stranger; The Book of Dead Days and its sequel The Dark Flight Down, with a magician’s nameless assistant, Boy, drawn into a literal underground world of secret passageways and secret knowledge, a wager with Death in the corrupt capital of a decayed empire. Then, with The Foreshadowing, came a superb, historically-grounded “what-if?” – what if a person could truly see the future, like the Cassandra of myth? What if, at the outset of the First World War, a girl found she could see death – in the faces of strangers, of friends and, horrifyingly, her own family? Eighteen-year-old Alexandra is the youngest child of a well-to-do doctor, with all the frustration and family tyranny that represents in 1916. Her premonitions are a source of embarrassment, shame and fear as they become more frequent and harder to ignore. Her elder brother Edgar makes his father proud by accepting a commission; only Alexandra understands the shabby, pointless truth of his death a few months later. Then middle brother Tom abandons his medical studies to go to the Front, and Alexandra foresees the gunshot that will strike him down – and determines, against all possible odds, to run away to Flanders and avert Tom’s fate. If ever there was a gun on the mantelpiece (© Chekhov), this is it – with the tension subtly ratcheted-up by reverse-order mini-chapters from 101 to 1 – but who’s to say the gun will fire in exactly the manner expected? A riveting drama for at least 11+ (sorry again, exceeding my brief – I probably am for the rest of this post), and one with real heart as Alexandra is brought ever closer to the pity and waste and meaninglessness of war.
In 2005, I believe some lady in the US published a book about vampires in high school. Quite independently (and not just in my opinion more interestingly), Sedgwick explored the uncorrupted body of Eastern European vampire myth and emerged with My Swordhand is Singing, bringing together fairytale and legend to spectacular, hyper-real effect, like a hand-coloured silent movie. There’s Tomas the old woodcutter, bitter and addled with drink, fleeing his past, and Peter his son who does most of the work uncomplaining; there are the hostile villagers, and Peter’s sometime sweetheart Agnes, by turns aloof and beseeching; there are the gypsies, recalling some unspoken bond from Tomas’ past, and the bewitching Sofia; there are the legends of the Winter King and the Shadow Queen, and the dead who refuse to die, now closing in on the living… An electric read, with a beguiling Venetian-set sequel in The Kiss of Death.
Blood Red, Snow White might just be a grown-up novel for children, but this grown-up did enjoy it – not only because the original hardback is quite beautiful, with vintage maps on the endpapers and speckled, untrimmed pages. It helps a little to know that Arthur Ransome was an extraordinarily intrepid reporter in revolutionary Russia before he ever settled to writing the beloved Swallows and Amazons books; it doesn’t hurt to have some notion of the Tsarina and Rasputin, Lenin and Trotsky, the Reds and the Whites – although for the uninitiated, both revolutionaries are appealingly pen-portrayed stroking their “small and excellent beards”. Ransome is at first drawn to Russia through its fairy tales, which lead him to the Russian language (not a thing to be learned lightly, I will tell you) and then to an escape from an unhappy marriage. He sees at first hand the power and chaos and romanticism, and ultimately the terror, of the October Revolution, and inadvertently becomes a spy and falls in love, not necessarily in that order. Then his life becomes dominated by three things: preserving his own life, across ever-shifting alliances and between unreliable friendships; helping his beloved Evgenia to safety; and feeding just enough information to various paymasters and controllers. Another gripping read, in a setting largely and unjustly ignored by almost all children’s fiction (give me revolutionary Russia over suburbia anonyma, I say, any day).
If Moscow, St Petersburg and Stockholm in winter seem uncompromising, just imagine northern Sweden or Nome, Alaska at the time of the 1890s gold rush, in Revolver… and guess at the claustrophobia inside a small snowbound cabin, heated by a wood-burning stove, beside a frozen lake. Now imagine, in that cabin, a teenaged boy and a dead man – his assayist father, killed in an unlikely accident on the lake – left alone while his sister and stepmother take the dog sled to the nearby town to get help. Then comes a visitor – a terrifying bear of a man, who has tracked the family for ten years, and is not about to be cheated of the fortune he claims the dead man owed him. The bear-man has a gun – but somewhere in the cabin, too, is Sig’s father’s prized revolver (another gun on the mantelpiece), and if Sig can only distract the bear-man for long enough, he might have a chance of escape. Cabin, winter, dead man, stranger, gun – with a story that reels out into the past and the whys and wherefores, only to whip back in with some new and immediate threat – it’s a masterly, read-in-one-sitting piece of suspense, and a brilliant evocation of a bleak, barely believable living.
Finally and most recently, Midwinterblood, a story in seven episodes set over maybe fifteen hundred years, unfurling from the near future to the past of Viking legend. In 2073, journalist Eric visits the island of Blest on the track of a story – a rare flower, an extract traded as a drug for the super-rich, rumours of eternal youth. There’s more than a hint of Wicker Man as Eric finds the islanders friendly but guarded – and his phone can’t pick up a signal, and his charger has mysteriously vanished. It’s a beautiful place, and everyone seems so contented – but why are there no children? And Eric keeps forgetting the story that brought him here, settling into a vague contentment that’s only shaken by Merle, the beautiful girl he falls for with a disquieting sense that they have known each other a long time already. As it proves over subsequent episodes, when Eric/Erik and Merle/Melle recur – not necessarily as lovers, which would make for a more predictable tale, but as parent and child, brother and sister, old recluse and inquisitive young visitor, and in the guise of a wartime story, a ghost story, a vampire story and finally an ancient myth which not only grounds Eric and Merle’s story but prefigures the mortal danger to them both in 2073. A brilliant Chinese box of a book.
For more about all the books, www.marcussedgwick.com is darkly stylish (of course) and well maintained. For some excellent Raven Mysteries goodies and games, with lashings of Pete Williamson art, enjoy www.ravenmysteries.co.uk