Back to the future
PRETEEN FICTION:The second World War and a burping granny are welcome diversions from fantasy
THE SUBTITLE OF Barry Hutchison’s The 13th Horseman (Harper Collins, £6.99) is a dead giveaway: “Cheer up – it’s the end of the world.” The end of the world is indeed a pressing concern in the mound of books considered here. Not only is it imminent, but it’s also a kids’ problem.
The 13th Horseman draws on the biblical apocalypse, the revelation of the end of the world. Drake, aged 14, discovers three horsemen named Pestilence, War and Famine (who is so obese he has a mobility scooter) in his garden shed. As soon as a fourth horseman, Death, is appointed, Armageddon can begin.
Twelve previous occupants of Death’s job have quit, and Drake’s fate is to be that fourth horseman. So begin his adventures, to be continued in future volumes. I found the humour heavy-handed, even crass, especially concerning Famine’s voracious appetite. But Hutchison’s fantasy, in the Terry Pratchett/Neil Gaiman mode, will sell: his horror series, Afterworlds, has a dedicated following.
In Tad Williams and Victoria Beale’s The Secrets of Ordinary Farm (Quercus, £6.99), only the children Tyler and Lucinda can be relied on to save their uncle Gideon’s California farm – and perhaps the universe. The children discover that California’s geological fault line allows access to alternative times and places. Uncle Gideon offers sanctuary to dragons, unicorns and other creatures at the far-from-ordinary Ordinary Farm.
A billionaire, Ed Stillman, has nefarious plans for the farm, but Gideon wants the children to inherit it. Are evil Mrs Needle and her exasperating son Colin responsible for Gideon’s sudden illness?
This tale is well told, although the parallels with Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven stories are unmistakable.
There are more dragons in Chris D’Lacey’s The Fire Ascending (Orchard, £12.99), and readers of the series’ six preceding books will have been awaiting this final volume. The epic struggle has Agawin seeking the last dragon high up in mythical mountains, but he also goes back to other dragons, Guinivere and Gawain.
As the story unfolds, timelines are rewritten and, with them, the lives of characters encountered in earlier cliff-hanging tales. The plot resolution is rushed, and some of its surprises will leave fans feeling short-changed. The final two sections add little to a complex, exhausting tale.
More fantasy, and yet another series volume, comes from Kieran Mark Crowley, in Colm and the Ghost’s Revenge (Mercier, €8.99). In the first book, Colm and his cousin destroyed the mysterious Lazarus key, outwitting a master criminal and a zombie-vampire called the Ghost. Or so they thought. It transpires that there are three keys, and whoever possesses them is immortal and megapowerful. Improbably, only Colm can prevent the Ghost from wreaking universal havoc. Colm has other problems, including a demanding mother and a propensity for getting into scrapes. His adventures are weird and his fellow characters innumerable, and the novel ends predictably, setting the scene for Crowley’s next assault on the universe.
A little realism is a welcome relief from the ubiquitous fantasy, and Shirley Hughes, famed for her illustrations, provides it. Hero on a Bicycle (Walker Books, £9.99), a solid, tense tale that retains interest throughout, is her first foray into novel writing. The time is 1944, the place Florence, occupied by Nazis, and European civilisation is at risk. Paolo’s father is away fighting the occupation. What can Paolo do? Plenty, it seems.
Danger is palpable: Paolo cycles the countryside each night, helping partisans impatient to liberate Florence, and Paolo’s mother shelters two escaped Allied prisoners. This novel will surely become a mainstay of British history classes grappling with the second World War.
Exhausted from saving the world, I turned to Siobhan Rowden’s The Curse of the Bogle’s Beard (Scholastic, £5.99). A revolting, burping Granny constantly finds fault with Barnaby’s father, who has vanished, confirming her worst opinion of him. Granny expects Barnaby to take over her pickling factory, but he learns some surprising secrets from an old diary.
Rowden has filched a few Roald Dahl motifs and concocted a clever, witty tale with them. But Barnaby, a sensitive soul, is entirely her invention. Hurray for a happy ending to a well-plotted tale! This, Rowden’s debut novel, augurs well for – what else? – the future.
Mary Shine Thompson is a critic of children’s literature