Looking over the last few posts, it strikes to me that the blog has taken rather a turn for the masculine: Philip Pullman, Philip Reeve, Chris Riddell, Marcus Sedgwick, Paul Stewart, Jonathan Stroud (oh, and a brief flurry of fairies, mermaids and things generally fluffy and sparkly around R for Rainbow Magic). As my son would say, with eyes at their very widest – It Was An Accident, I Didn’t Mean To Do It, It Wasn’t My Fault… Of course, they’re all cracking writers and I shouldn’t dream of apologising for making their case; but it did make me wonder whether I’d struck a coincidence or a trend. Maybe it’s just my bias towards fantasy, natural realm of the saturnine, vitamin-D-deprived, post-adolescent male – but fantasy writers have always been more equal-opportunity than their readers, and plenty of the classic children’s fantasy authors were and are women: Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula Le Guin, Penelope Lively. JK Rowling, too, if you will, and Cornelia Funke, and Angie Sage…
Also from time to time (sigh of relief) Kate Thompson, four times winner of the Irish Children’s Book of the Year award, as well as the Whitbread Children’s Book Award and Guardian Children’s Fiction prize – an author who specialises in imaginative reach, keen eye and clear voice and a way of subtly confounding expectations. This is nicely demonstrated in one of Thompson’s sparky stories for younger readers, Highway Robbery (the hardback edition has a black velvet cover – kitsch, yes, but somehow you can’t help stroking it with the side of a finger…), in which a street lad tells the story of the most remarkable thing that ever happened to him: the dashing highwayman who promised him a golden guinea if he’d keep safe hold of his beautiful black mare. A task which proves to be riskier and more of a burden than the boy imagined, as the highwayman fails to return and the boy realises who he must be… could he really be looking after Dick Turpin’s own Black Bess? And what on earth is he to do if Turpin doesn’t come back? It’s a deceitful old world: who is to be trusted?
Wanted!, written at the same level, should by rights have an incised stone cover, but I can well understand the problems of production and distribution. Marcus is a baker’s boy in Ancient Rome; his family have fallen foul of the mad, cruel emperor known as Littleboots (Caligula), and the whole city lives in fear of the emperor’s next deadly whim. When an escaping slave presses a gold chain into Marcus’ hand, he’s horrified to recognise the jewelled bridle and purple cloak of the most famous horse in the city: Incitatus, whom his owner Littleboots has appointed a consul. Marcus’ family realise the danger and do their best to turn Incitatus loose – but the esteemed consul has other ideas. Then comes the rumour that Caligula is dead – can it possibly be true? And even so, are the family out of danger? Both books are accessible and readable and several cuts above the standard fare for developing readers; especially satisfying for the history-minded, they lend themselves particularly well to reading aloud. Toby Clements in the Telegraph hopes for a series, and the potential is certainly there for a line of historical horses: Alexander’s Bucephalus, Wellington’s Copenhagen, Napoleon’s Marengo (all right then, that’s as far as my pub quiz knowledge goes). I say yes please.
Thompson has an exemplary author biography, including not only law studies but also racehorse training, and while there isn’t too much heavy law in her books, she writes about horses not only knowing all the right words, but with a deep understanding of their behaviour, their responses, perhaps even their souls. It’s not anthropomorphism, but a much subtler understanding of how animals really behave, and it’s there from her first children’s books, the acclaimed Switchers trilogy. Other authors over the centuries may have explored the idea of humans taking animal shape at will; but few have described so persuasively what it must feel like to be a squirrel or a rat or a goat, with quite different compulsions and codes as well as capabilities. Well-brought-up Tess loves the freedom of her animal excursions, but is fastidious when it comes to choosing the animals she’ll change herself into; while street boy Kevin feels he fits in better as a rat than a human. It’s the rats, with their networks and their secret ways, who bring Tess and Kevin to crazy-seeming Lizzie, the one person in the world who understands the unnatural winter spreading across the world. Lizzie knows Tess and Kevin’s powers, and believes that they alone can stop the menace in the Arctic. Subsequent Switchers volumes bring other supernatural mysteries, vampires and fairy folk; I’m not as convinced by the thriller elements, but the descriptions of squirrel-scamper and owl-swoop, rat-chatter and goat-mischief, are vivid and exhilarating.
Shape-shifting is succeeded by bio-thriller in the Missing Link trilogy, and unnatural winter by all-too-human oil shortages, fuel crises, panic buying and states of emergency as Christie, his half-brother Danny and mistrustful, homeless Tina make their way from Dublin to northern Scotland in search of Danny’s mother. They’d be unlikely travelling companions at the best of times, especially with Danny’s autistic-spectrum behaviour, but they also have a talking dog and starling who are as much liabilities as guides; and transport is closing down, and winter setting in across the Highlands. When they find Danny’s mother, there’s a fresh set of mysteries – more talking animals, and uncanny-looking Sandra who is never allowed to leave the house, and a hidden laboratory that must never be discussed; but can wise, generous Maggie really be doing something illegal and possibly evil?
The first Irish Children’s Book of the Year came in 2002 for The Beguilers, an otherworldly tale of a rebellious spirit in a remote, closed community of which I’ve only been able to find a tantalising fragment online. A year later, Thompson scooped the award again for The Alchemist’s Apprentice: more expectation-defying as Jack, a bullied blacksmith’s boy escapes his apprenticeship and finds a mysterious artefact in the river. The strange object brings him first to the antiquarian, Master Gregory, and then to the enigmatic alchemist Barnstable. Fascinated, bewildered, confused and frustrated, Jack becomes Barnstable’s apprentice, only to be sent into the world with a seemingly impossible quest, and to experience fortune at its most capricious. Is Barnstable a fraud or a madman? And what will Jack learn about himself, and what will become of him? Annan Water picked up the prize two years later again with another change of direction, a young-adult novel bringing together two restless teenagers whose lives are haunted by bad luck and the long death-shadow of a Borders ballad. Set largely within Michael’s family, a hand-to-mouth horse-dealing business, it describes brilliantly the graft and fugitive glamour of horse training and competition, and the all-too-fragile joy that scarlet-haired, scarred and much-pierced Annie brings into Michael’s isolated life.
The New Policeman is the book that I had to give to all my trad-musician friends, a cracking story made all the better by the brilliant device of naming every short chapter after a traditional Irish tune, and using those to shape the story. (They are cracking tunes, too.) The Liddy family, and the whole community of Kinvara, are living with the problem of time: there’s less of it every day, disappearing faster and faster. JJ Liddy has the more immediate problem of a terrible accusation: can it be true that his grandfather murdered a priest? Learning a few secrets about his family, JJ resolves to buy his mother some time, and discovers in the process that the fairy folk have their own problem with time: somehow, the two worlds are affecting one another in ways they never should. Can JJ find the source of the mischief? And who is the hapless New Policeman, so clearly in the wrong job? A clever interweaving of fairy legend and modern life, it gave rise to two sequels, Last of the High Kings and the acclaimed finale, The White Horse Trick, set in a flood-swept, warlord-ravaged Ireland of the late twenty-first century.
The Fourth Horseman is another compelling bio-thriller set in the present day, as Laurie and her brother Alex and friend Javed come to question Laurie’s father’s secretive and all-consuming laboratory project. At first the family is delighted for him to return to the research he loves, and they dismiss qualms about its top-secret status. Then Laurie finds a role looking after the red and grey squirrels that are central to the project; soon after, she has her first terrifying vision of the white horseman, and sees its hypnotic effect on her father. How can she persuade her father to quit? And why does the project become so much more urgent after a coup in Javed’s native Shasakstan? Finally, Laurie, Alex and Javed find themselves taking desperate action.
I can’t help it, I have to go beyond the 7-11 age range again for what may be Thompson’s best, the Carnegie-medal-shortlisted Creature of the Night. It’s pretty uncompromising with its feral main character (hero would definitely be the wrong word) Bobby, picking pockets and stealing cars, getting high and getting wasted with his Dublin gang. When his mother escapes the moneylenders to start a new life in the country with his younger brother, Bobby is desperate to get back to the lads as fast as he can. The previous tenant of their rented cottage has disappeared without trace, but thoughtfully left his Skoda behind; when Bobby finds the key, he’s back to Dublin without a backward glance. Somehow, the gang don’t give him quite the welcome he expects, and a bad misjudgement returns him more than once to despised County Clare. Gradually, two things happen, and just as something in Bobby’s character imperceptibly shifts, the mystery grows around Lars the previous tenant, and the “little woman” Bobby’s brother Dennis claims to see at night. Bobby’s voice is pitch-perfect, hard and amoral and all-seeing and devastatingly revealing. A bleakly brilliant read, uplifting without saccharine or sermonising, and once more defying expectations to the last.
I must admit, I don’t know what Thompson has currently in the pipeline – but whatever it is, I’ll be buying it.