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New young-adult fiction: A land of curses, a teenager’s messy life, a world at war

Unraveller by Frances Hardinge; These Are The Words by Nikita Gill; Sophie Jo’s The Nicest Girl; Kwame Alexander’s Booked; Jamila Gavin’s Never Forget You; Ruta Sepetys’s I Must Betray You

Frances Hardinge. Photograph: Urszula Soltys

Those who live in the country of Raddith fear having a curse placed upon them. “A curse could cross any distance, permeate any stronghold, pass through any armour. It could find you wherever you hid, and no bodyguard could defend you from it.” Those who curse others are aided by the Little Brothers, spider-like creatures living in the strange marshlands known as the Wilds, who “seek out those consumed by rage or hatred” and see the “curse-egg” as a gift towards those who are otherwise powerless.

Throw two teenagers into the mix — Kellen, a boy with a talent for unravelling curses, and Nettle, a girl recovering from several years spent as a heron — and you have the latest weirdly-wonderful book from the Costa-Award-winning Frances Hardinge. Unraveller (Macmillan, £14.99) glimmers with eerie magic, taking its protagonists on a long and complicated journey that allows us to see some of the horrors that have come from being cursed. Girls are transformed into harps whose music speaks of their torment; men are sentenced to wriggle endlessly on the end of a fisherman’s hook as bait.

This inventive, immersive fantasy entertains and intrigues while also inviting us to consider pain and punishment. Are those with the potential to curse inherently dangerous, or are they justified in striking out at their persecutors? Should they be placed in a hospital to keep the rest of society safe, or is this treatment — “We lock them away for years in windowless rooms in chains and iron helmets!” — what keeps them sufficiently angry to curse again and again? There is nothing as facile as a moral to this story, though; the dangers and threats of the world resist easy solutions. Hardinge’s work is always exquisite; this latest volume is no exception.

Nikita Gill

Poet Nikita Gill offers advice and hope for young readers in These Are the Words (Macmillan, £7.99), a collection paced alongside the seasons and covering topics Gill has explored in her work for adults — misogyny, racism, protest, love, family. “I want us to love ourselves like we love art,” she notes, all too conscious of the things that can corrode our souls.


Gill’s poetry is accessible but haunting; there is a tenderness that avoids becoming too twee because it comes with acknowledgment of all the ugliness and pain in the world. Inviting someone to remember that they “are the moon” rather than obsessing over “a boy like that” could so easily seem naive, but she also notes, following trauma, “maybe what they did to you won’t leave. But the cliffs are still beautiful even after all they have weathered at the hands of the wind and the ocean, and so are you. So are you.” This is a gem.

Debut writer Sophie Jo, who has worked on campaigns about healthy teen relationships, also has a message to get across. In The Nicest Girl (UCLan Publishing, £7.99) we meet Anna, the girl who’s “always trying to make it better” for her friends and anyone else who asks. She is the poster child for a lack of boundaries, and she knows it; within the first fifty pages she has concocted a plan — it even gets its own specific notebook — for standing up for herself.

It doesn’t quite work out, because (to use the pop psychology adage) those who benefit from someone not having clear boundaries will punish them for setting any. Anna’s best friend Marla is furious when text messages are not responded to immediately, and the boy at school she’s trying to be friendly to is unimpressed when she doesn’t want more from him. Being honest and saying no to people is easier than it sounds, and although all works out well in the end, it’s realistically messy and difficult. Jo captures the small dramas of everyday teenage life beautifully.

Kwame Alexander

Acclaimed poet Kwame Alexander sees his verse novel Booked (Andersen Press, £9.99) appear as a graphic novel, illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile. Nick is almost 13 and hates reading, much to the disappointment of his academic parents. What he loves most of all is football and the way he feels on the pitch — here the images work particularly well to capture the energy — but collapsing with a bout of appendicitis means he won’t make it to the championships.

Frustrated and isolated, particularly as there are other strains in the family, the last thing he wants to do is to turn to books — but that’s eventually where he finds solace. This is not quite an account of learning that the grown-ups were right the whole time, though. When his father tells him, “books are like amusement parks”, Nick responds, “Yeah, well, maybe they would be fun if I got to pick the rides sometimes.”

This is a book about letting kids choose reading for fun, rather than duty, and will itself serve as that for many. It is occasionally a little too pointed — there is a rapping librarian, for example — but it’s mostly charming enough to get away with it.

Jamila Gavin’s latest novel Never Forget You (Farshore, £8.99) depicts four friends during the second World War. Meeting first in an English boarding school in the late 1930s, their relationships to the troubles in Europe vary; one has parents who move in then-fashionable fascist circles, while another cannot reconcile her father’s pacifism with a desire to do good in the world. Each goes on to make an impact during the war, though not all survive. This is a gripping story.

Ruta Sepetys explores more recent history in her latest novel, I Must Betray You (Hodder, £7.99). Romania under communist rule is a place where “we did as we were told. We were told a lot of things.” Seventeen-year-old Cristian knows that “good brothers and sisters in communism followed rules”; he is also aware that most people end up breaking the rules anyway. “There were so many to break. And so many to report that you had broken them.”

A small infraction of those rules leads to his being blackmailed into becoming an informer, and although he initially naively believes he can “outplay” the agent he deals with, it becomes clear how hopeless and bleak things are when everyone is under such heavy surveillance and trusting anyone — even your own family members — comes with a risk.

This is a suffocating read at times, although the 1989 setting offers some hope. Across Europe the Iron Curtain is falling, and Cristian listens eagerly to the illegal radio station as Romania’s time seems to approach. What he doesn’t yet know — and what many readers may not be aware until they encounter the details here — is that his own country’s escape from dictatorship will not look like the peaceful revolutions in other places.

Sepetys is a master of weaving historical events with compelling characters that crawl under your skin. So many of the world’s evils come down to a lack of recognition of the other’s humanity; books like hers invite and foster a fierce empathy and awareness. And like the best books that do this, they achieve their goal not by forcing a message down our throats — but by entrancing us with their extraordinary narrative power.

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy, a contributor to The Irish Times, specialises in reviewing young-adult literature