It’s been one of those weeks. Rescued from a dubious school-ship by a mechanical flying horse; covering up for the three clumsy aliens that arrived through a wormhole in the toilet; leaping from rooftop to rooftop, pursued by the slavering Night Wolf; defeating the hideous hover worm and escaping the voracious bloodoak, not to mention a horde of crazed gyle goblins and the vicious whims of the Termagant Trogs; being pitched into a world where lakes are airborne, cake decorators are treacherous and budgies answer back; and surviving the bleak wastes, backstabbing prospectors and terrifying beasts and implacable kin-riders of the Wyrmeweald. It could only happen in Stewart and Riddell country – a place that bubbles with invention and manic strangeness, bringing forth a complex bestiary of impossible creatures amid eruptions of steam, blood of various colours, slime, ooze and the occasional shower of sparks, like an immense, endlessly fervid witches’ brew.
Stewart and Riddell had both established careers as a writer and an illustrator respectively when they met at their sons’ nursery school. Keen to work together, they established a rare and possibly unique level of co-operation: instead of the author completing the story and the illustrator then being called in to visualise it, Stewart and Riddell collaborate from the outset, devising plots and characters and building on each other’s ideas, in a process they describe nicely here. Beyond the Deepwoods was the first result of that collaboration, and proved not only compulsive for the co-authors (The Edge Chronicles became first a trilogy, then a further two trilogies on either side, and then finally a tenth, concluding volume, The Immortals) but also a huge international success, selling over two million copies in over thirty languages.
The triple trilogy is a neat device, allowing readers to come to the story at different points without feeling they have missed out on vital episodes. Each of the three trilogies stands alone, but also informs and adds to the two others. It would be a little creepy and obsessive if Stewart and Riddell had actually planned all that, but as I understand it the structure evolved of itself, and chronologically the first book written, Beyond the Deepwoods, becomes the fourth In the sequence. Reading it, though, you’re not surprised to find that it was the first: the ebullience of the creature-invention, the relish in the wildness and weirdness and squelchiness of the Deepwoods in which the boy Twig must survive and make his way and find his true identity – all have a first-time zeal and lushness, as boundless and irrepressible as the Deepwoods themselves. Raised by well-meaning woodtrolls, Twig is clearly different – pale, gangly and with no taste for tripweed, the woodtrolls’ great delicacy. Worst of all, he thinks nothing of breaking woodtroll taboo and straying from the path – and is soon lost amongst poisonous and flesh-eating plants, fickle Slaughterers, shape-shifting Skullpelts and innumerable other creatures that sting, bite, lacerate, ensnare… and, when least expected, befriend and bond and protect. Just when Twig thinks he has finally found his own kind, he is abandoned again, only to face the most fearsome enemy of all, the Gloamglozer… But why should the Gloamglozer have chosen Twig as its victim? It’s no great spoiler to say that Twig survives, and follows his dream of becoming a sky pirate, learning the thrilling and dangerous trade of stormchasing and discovering the seething rivalries of Undertown and the no-less-deadly academic intrigues in the floating citadel of Sanctaphrax… until the approach of the Mother Storm, bringing life to the failing Edgewater River even as it threatens to destroy the citadel itself. And Twig, who might avert the catastrophe, is shipwrecked far away, with his crew and his memory scattered, and unless he recovers both, life across the entire Edgelands is at stake.
The Curse of the Gloamglozer is set some twenty years earlier (a timeline in The Lost Barkscrolls, a collection of shorter Edge chronicles, is invaluable for these specifics) and follows the adventures of the sky-pirate’s son Quint and Most High Academe’s daughter Maris in the marble halls of Sanctaphrax, where whole schools of professors and scholars and librarians and their minions devote themselves to plotting and backstabbing and the arcane study of controlling the weather. Quint and Maris soon find greater threats than academic bickering, however, as they explore the honeycomb of tunnels within Sanctaphrax and discover the true nature of the mythical Gloamglozer. The Winter Knights finds Quint enrolled at the prestigious Knights Academy, struggling to surmount student rivalries while the floating city faces the greater danger of a harsh winter – for floating rock becomes more buoyant in the cold, and the city is straining at its anchor-chain leash… Then in Clash of the Sky Galleons, Quint is back at his famous father’s side, lured on a quest for vengeance that takes father and son across earth and sky in an increasingly deadly pursuit.
The Last of the Sky Pirates, on the other hand, leaps fifty years on from Beyond the Deepwoods to find the Edgeworld greatly changed, with floating rocks having mysteriously lost their buoyancy to “stone sickness”, and the city of New Sanctaphrax grounded. Knowledge is literally driven underground, as the old sky-scholars take refuge and build their great library below Undertown, and orphaned under-librarian Rook Barkwater seems to be condemned forever to a minion’s life in the darkness. An unlooked-for promotion allows him to leave the library and Undertown, and to explore the Deepwoods and Free Glades – with lasting consequences for his fellow librarians, the people of Undertown and the balance of power in the whole Edgeworld as the trilogy progresses. Finally, The Immortals leaps some five hundred years into the future to draw an epic conclusion, with the adventures of Nate Silver, Eudoxia Prade and some surprisingly familiar faces as well. Riddell’s illustrations are superb throughout, exquisite line with a distinct hommage to Tenniel, but I think in The Immortals they are at their finest, with wonderful character, delicate detail and some brilliant use of striking black backgrounds.
Somewhere in the middle of the Edge Chronicles, it seems, came the urge to do something not just bonkers but silly with it (read the books and you’ll understand the serious distinction): Muddle Earth, successfully followed by Muddle Earth Too, a heady mix of Tolkien, C S Lewis, J K Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, infused with the spirit of A. A. Milne and Monty Python, I’d say with a detectable dash of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett too (find more in my After Harry Potter post). We Love This Book has a nice description of the ideas and the writing process – lots of coffee and deleting, which sounds quite like my day job too – although without the writing partner, more’s the pity.
Soon after that came the Far-Flung Adventures, devised for a younger readership, 7+ to The Edge Chronicles’ 9+ I’d say, and some of my favourite Stewart and Riddell productions. The fantastic invention and the brilliant illustration are a given, but Fergus Crane and companions have a particular sweetness to them, what with their Edwardian atmosphere, plucky heroes and heroines, embattled families and dastardly villains – enlivened by a firm of inventive penguins, a spying lunchbox, a singing rhinoceros, that mechanical horse and a flock of flying carpets. The readable text and frequent illustrations make them accessible to the newly confident reader, but the level of inventiveness sets them (along with Riddell’s Ottoline books, as mentioned in the Life after Rainbow Magic post) far above the usual developing-reader fare in both interest and reader appeal.
And after the Far-Flung Adventures, some full-blown Victoriana in the Barnaby Grimes series. Barnaby is a “tick-tock lad”, a message boy – something between a modern-day cycle courier and base jumper, navigating vertiginous walls and rooftops to carry out his duties in the shortest possible time. Cocky and swaggering, yet sharp-eyed and fast-moving, he’s the ideal person to uncover some very unsavoury mysteries in the heart of the city… such as the enigmatic Dr Cadwallader, administering his miraculous tonic without charge, but only to the poor and lonely – right around the same time that Barnaby has his first encounter with the unearthly night wolf, and the fashionable city goes wild for the sleek fur “Westphalian Trim.” What has happened to Barnaby’s friend Benjamin, the former coachman – and why has his coachman’s chair been found overturned in the street, with the upholstery ripped as though by long, sharp claws? Barnaby’s commissions, and his search for answers, take him from fashionable consulting rooms and lawyers’ offices to the docks and slums, and his foes are human, animal and everything in between. The books look like a younger read, with large and well-spaced type, but I’d suggest a 9+ or 10+ tolerance for blood and guts. Which is to say, most 10+ year-old boys, especially the historically-minded, will love it.
For young adults, the Wyrmeweald trilogy gives the authors the luxury of longer and more complex plot development as well as some older and darker elements: characters flirt, fall in love, kiss and more, as well as hurt, spoil and kill. Micah, the greenhorn hero, leaves the settled plains where he’s bullied by his brother and teased and toyed with by Seraphita, the well-to-do farmer’s daughter with whom he’s hopelessly besotted. When Seraphita is engaged to a young nobleman, Micah strikes out for the Wyrmeweald, the impossibly dangerous highlands which can offer untold wealth – to the few who ever return alive. It’s not long before Micah finds his first body, dead of thirst, and then his second and third, brutally speared like fish, moments before Micah is himself struck down. Among all the cheats, scavengers and villains of the Wyrmeweald, it’s Micah’s luck to be rescued by cragclimber Eli Halfwinter, the one man who knows how his wound can be cured, and who can teach him not only to survive the harsh territory and treacherous men, but also to respect the dragonlike wyrmes to whom the land belonged before men ever ventured there. With Eli, Micah first meets the kin – the wyrmes’ beautiful, terrible, life-bonded riders – and is gradually drawn into a tightening net of violence, horror, pursuit and revenge, with a fragile, barely-possible love story unfurling at its heart. Through the trilogy, humankind and wyrmes both gather strength towards a terrible, final confrontation, and Micah and kingirl Thrace both have to make agonising decisions as to where and with whom they truly belong… Riddell’s illustrations, more atmospheric than ever, appear in beautiful vertical bands on the opening pages of chapters – classic and inimitable.
www.stewartandriddell.co.uk has lots more on the authors, the Edge Chronicles, Far-Flung Adventures, Barnaby Grimes and Wyrmeweald, as well as extra sketches and dispatches from the Deepwoods and the Wyrmeweald in the linked site Weird New Worlds. And if you’re inspired to start reading, this could be a good time to join the Creepy House summer reading challenge, www.creepy-house.org.uk, in which you’ll surely recognise Riddell’s eerie artwork. Join at your local library and read just six books over the summer to win stickers, rewards and a certificate when you complete the challenge. Whoo-hoo-hoo-ha-hah!