Worldbuilding Through Characterization
 

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Children’s Fantasy: Eight of the Best – Part Two

This is Part Two of our look at Children’s Fantasy series. If you missed it, you can read Part One here.

The Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea (cover)Farther west than west
Beyond the land
My people are dancing
On the other wind.

This quartet can often be found in the adult fantasy section of bookstores, as well as the children’s. My 1993 edition is published by Puffin. The first two books in the sequence are favourites: A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, the latter of which features the chilling Nameless Ones, powers of the dark.

Tenar is a priestess serving these ancient gods in their temple, a perilous labyrinth ready to lead astray all but its chosen servants. Her story is entwined with Ged’s, the wizard from the first book, who journeys across the world in search of his shadow. The magic here is that of Naming, where every living thing possesses a true name, as well as a common. Knowing the true name grants control.

It’s difficult to express how I feel about Earthsea. Le Guin’s world is epic, endless, unknowable. There are dragons, powers of light and dark and sweeping landscapes. When I first read the quartet at around age fifteen, I held it sacred. I didn’t talk about it. I wanted to keep it secret. By naming it, I would give its power away. I’ve never felt like this about another book.

Why you should read it:
There is no question that you must. Reading Earthsea is like sitting in the privacy of the Immanent Grove on Roke, isle of the wizards, feeling your way into a spell. There is depth here, depth of storytelling, of prose, of the essence of things. There is so much to learn and only Le Guin can teach you.

The Deptford Histories and The Deptford Mice by Robin Jarvis

The Dark Portal (cover)Jarvis is an extraordinary writer, one who can scare and unnerve with a few well-chosen sentences. Histories expands upon characters introduced in Mice and is probably the darker trilogy. Again, expect no happy endings. Jarvis draws on historical London to create tales of deceit, evil and strength in adversity. Like Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, you seem to forget that the protagonists of these books are animals more often than not. Some exhibit the darkest impulses of human nature. Others are courageous, fighting to keep their worlds free from tyranny.

Jarvis is deft in his characterisation and revisits portentous moments of English history. In The Alchemist’s Cat, which expands upon the background of Jupiter (the antagonist in The Deptford Mice), we return to 1664, year of the Black Death. This book is full of alchemy, murder and sorcery – a potent, heady mix that haunts you far beyond the last page. The Oaken Throne, second in the Histories trilogy, has echoes of Romeo and Juliet and is just as bleak and wonderful.

Why you should read it:
If you are not afraid of the gruesome, the dark and the deadly, Jarvis will take you to worlds hidden beneath our streets, where rodent and cat do battle, and saints and villains alike fight for supremacy. And he’ll do it in the macabre prose for which he is famous:

Like some ghastly angel of Death the plague spread its dark wings over the city, moving stealthily from house to house. Nothing could stop the insidious flow of this silent assassin. It stalked the darkened streets and searched for the living, touching them with fatal caresses and breathing oblivion into their faces.

These books will keep you reading long into the night. Turning out the light will seem unthinkably foolish.

Song of the Lioness and Immortals by Tamora Pierce

Alanna (cover)Both series are set in Tortall: a classic knights-and-monsters realm: raiders in the north, desert tribes and shamans in the south and a royal capital where young boys train to become knights in the service of their king.

Song of the Lioness follows Alanna of Trebond, who disguises herself as a boy in order to undergo knight’s training. Alanna is a chosen one: a warrior with a gift for healing magic. She excels at almost everything, more by dint of her determination than natural physical strength. This is character-driven fantasy at its best: Alanna is frequently cross and hot-headed, occasionally terrified and stubborn to the point of almost killing herself. She has three different lovers over the course of the books and frankly that’s refreshing for a female lead.

She hit low and hard. Ralon doubled over, clutching his lower belly. She waited, legs braced, fists ready. “Take it back. Or I’ll stuff your mouth with dung – since you like it so much!”

Excellent.

Wild Magic (cover)Pierce’s second series, The Immortals, features Daine, who by contrast isn’t a warrior. She’s a wild-mage, whose magic grants her a bond with animals and the natural world. Daine’s journey sees her change from a scared, orphaned village girl to a shape-shifting demi-god with power over the living and the dead. She turns feral, runs with wolves and kills bandits with her teeth before being hunted by her own neighbours.

In the distance the girl heard the calling of wolves… Is it a hunt-song? No, pack-song. They’re just singing to be doing it, not to celebrate the kill. If I could just run… Dive into the forest. Go with them, be Hunt Sister and one with the pack.

Why you should read it:
The Tortall books are carried by female protagonists: strong, stubborn, compassionate and determined. Add to them a supporting cast of animals, sub-humans, demons and gods and you have yourself a whirlwind heroic fantasy. Characters like Alanna and Daine were an important addition to the genre when they first appeared. Pierce shows us what we ought to know already: that even the most beautiful princesses also ride horses, carry their own weapons and go on adventures.

Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

Skulduggery Pleasant (cover)Meet Skulduggery Pleasant: detective, magician, warrior. Oh yes, and dead.

Whenever I think about the ninth and final book in this series due out in September, I get ridiculously excited. Landy has created the perfect duo in Skulduggery and Valkyrie, a dream team set to keep the peace…violently. Except that Valkyrie has a dark secret, which is threatening to tear her world (and the world) apart. This is fantasy for the modern teen and I wish it had been around at the time I cast poor Susan Cooper aside.

Instead, I tore through eight books over the course of a fortnight last year. The covers are artistically brilliant, I’m in love with the titular skeleton and I regularly covet Valkyrie’s necromancy powers. And these books are funny. Laugh out loud funny, which is hard to do from the page. Skulduggery Pleasant might not belong to the epic brand of fantasy, but its memorable characters inhabit a modern Dublin full of recognisable locations. Like Harry Potter, Landy’s world feels extremely plausible.

Why you should read it:
Skulduggery is just so well dressed.

Oh, and also because of the lightning pace, the japes, escapes and a girl called Tanith Low. There are adventures galore, fist fights, magic fights, mysterious deaths and enough detective work to keep Skulduggery and Valkyrie (aka Stephanie) in continuous business. Each volume sees Valkyrie a little older and struggling between missions with the same growing pains as a normal girl. Her relationship with Skulduggery is intriguing, as – though separated by hundreds of years in age – they’re very much alike.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

Sophie looked warily at the demon’s thin blue face. It had a distinctly cunning look as it made this proposal. Everything she had read showed the extreme danger of making a bargain with a demon. And there was no doubt that this one did look extraordinarily evil…“Are you sure you’re being quite honest?” she said.

Howl's Moving Castle (cover)Yes, it’s the book that inspired the successful Studio Ghibli film of the same name. If – like me – you came to the novel after the film, don’t expect it to be a carbon copy. Miyazaki’s creation, while utterly magnificent, takes a few liberties with the original story. The war is played up, the world is full of modern/steampunkish flying machines and the moving castle itself is somewhat re-imagined. Although the roles of supporting characters feature significantly more in the book, the principal characters of Howl and Sophie remain relatively true. Wynne Jones herself commented that ‘Howl is less of a drama queen in the film, and more of a hero’, but that ‘Sophie was very well done’. And having now read the book, I can say it’s one you absolutely must add to your shelves.

I’ve set up this comparison chiefly because a lot of people watch the film before they realise it’s an adaptation. And thankfully that’s not a problem in this instance unless you are in love with flying machines. Better to love Howl, a talented but cowardly wizard, who has given his heart to a fire demon, Calcifer. The story is told through Sophie’s eyes, a young woman cursed into the body of an old. Howl and Sophie embark on similar journeys to find their self-respect, and both come to the realisation that they cannot run from life’s challenges.

Why you should read it:
Howl’s Moving Castle could potentially feel like a fairy tale, but it transcends that label courtesy of Sophie, its wonderful hero. Her curse is not all bad, for it grants her a level of personal insight that she lacked as a young woman. She’s crafty, always speaks her mind and has a dry sense of humour that sets her apart from other, more traditional female protagonists. Howl himself shatters the handsome wizard stereotype by being a bit of a popinjay. Despite this, he is charismatic and intriguing in equal measure, and his castle is a place of wonder. Wynne Jones possesses a confident narrative voice, making her novel a swift and pleasurable read.

– – –

I am well aware that I’ve neglected to mention some of the greats, but I’d like to think they speak for themselves. If you’re still in need of recommendations, here’s a couple more from the booksellers at Waterstones Exeter Roman Gate.

Paul recommends: The Borrible Trilogy by Michael de Larrabeiti and The Box of Delights by John Masefield.

Eleanor recommends: The Psammead series by E. Nesbit.

Isabel recommends: The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis.

Claire recommends: The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler.

Gill recommends:

– His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. The scope and majesty of these books is incredible. They grow with the reader.
Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve. This underrated series has a clever central idea, awesome characters and is well-written.
The Ingo Chronicles by Helen Dunmore have a real sense of place, rooted in Cornwall and the sea. Dunmore is also a poet and adult novelist and the beauty of her writing is coupled with great storytelling.
– George MacDonald for his fairy tales. They may seem old fashioned and moralistic now, but they’re wonderful stories. You can see connections with more recent classics such as Artemis Fowl.

Children’s bookseller, Michele, recommends: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman’s mythic world is magical. From fadings and dreamwalking to the mysterious Lady on the Grey and the night of the Dance Macabre, this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Contrary to the title, it is filled with life. I don’t usually read novels in the fantasy genre, but this book has opened the gateway for me. I believed in this story, so much so that it’s even changed the way I look at graveyards. Now, thanks to a testimonial from Diana Wynne Jones on the cover, I am halfway through Howl’s Moving Castle and I’m enchanted.

Me: If it’s picture books you’re after, try Grahame Baker-Smith’s Farther and Leon and the Place Between. Also The Worst Princess by Anna Kemp and Sara Ogilvie.

And if by some remarkable chance you haven’t read Harry Potter…well, what on earth are you waiting for?

Title image by TheExtentofSilence .

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2 Comments

  1. An excellent run-down. Of the featured books, I’ve only read Earthsea (and completely echo your sentiments) but I’ll remember these recommendations.

    There are actually six Earthsea books, by the way. The Other Wind is the fifth (and probably final) book of Ged and Tenar’s story, and Tales from Earthsea is short stories from various periods of Earthsea’s history.

  2. Avatar Lucy Hounsom says:

    I’ve read The Other Wind, but it was long ago and I think I kind of disassociated it from the earlier books. It’s still on my shelf though so maybe time to have a refresh. Thanks for the reminder!

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