Science takes on magic

Holiday books for preteens

Michael Scott: the  myth-master signs off with The Enchantress.

Michael Scott: the myth-master signs off with The Enchantress.


The magic of one generation may be the science of another but, not infrequently, the discourses of magic and science co-exist. The Sturm und Drang of their uneasy relationship runs through most of the books under consideration here.

In 2007 Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves published the bestselling sci-fi novel Interworld. Gaiman was too busy to cowrite a sequel, so he, Reaves and Reaves’s daughter Mallory together hammered out the frame of The Silver Dream (Harper Collins, £12.99). The Reaveses have now published the story of 16-year-old Joey who, with his army of alternate selves, must balance the warring forces of magic and science to save the multiverse and the interworld. He strikes up an uneasy alliance with his antagonist, the inscrutable Acacia. Readers are advised to tackle Interworld before they broach the flummoxing science of its rather heavy-handed sequel.
Alter egos are also the stuff of Andy Mulligan’s The Boy with Two Heads (David Fickling, £10.99). Mulligan made waves with an earlier novel, Trash, which drew on his real-life encounters with children living on a dump. This is just as chilling, and just as readable.

The story revolves around meek, dutiful Richard, aged 12, who wakes up one morning with two heads. No explanations. Perhaps things have become just too much for him. Entrance examinations to secondary school loom menacingly and pubertal tensions mount, exacerbated by the recent sudden death of Richard’s beloved grandfather, which leaves him tortured with grief.

Richard is cowed, acquiescent; Rikki (Richard’s second head) is hostile, vindictive, gratuitously lashing out at anyone vulnerable. The result is a disturbing, provocative book. Did Rikki cast the facile insult “retard!”, for example, merely to shock? Ultimately Richard/Rikki’s honesty and his growing self-awareness swayed me.

Strangely, the two heads do not strain the tale’s credibility, and neither does the book’s ambitious range of references. Not every writer could get away with stealing Kafka’s opening lines in Metamorphosis, implicitly referencing Dennis Potter or rewriting the Icarus tale; Mulligan does. Less successfully integrated are the multiple narrative forms: myth, of course, the school story, the science-fiction horror tale, and the endurance/survival narrative. Nonetheless, this is a powerful read for the upper age group.

Myth-master Michael Scott’s long-awaited final novel in his sequence of six blockbusters, The Enchantress (Corgi, £6.99), has finally arrived. It ends Scott’s time-travel war between magic and science, studded with bewildering troops of fantasy characters including Scathach, Shakespeare and Joan of Arc.

The Dark Elders are locked in battle with monsters loosed from Alcatraz, but their designs threaten San Francisco and the entire human race. Twins Josh and Sophie travel back 10,000 years, aeons from their mentors, the Flamels. We learn the fate of characters such as Billy the Kid, Machiavelli and Virginia Dare, and the twins’ true identity. Not even the most dedicated fan will be ready for all the surprises in this mythocopia.

Siblings Callie and Nick, in Michael Malaghan’s The Lost Prophecies (Andersen Press, £5.99), follow the Greek adventure of their first book with a helter-skelter tussle with Egyptian ancients. Not only can they decipher ancient hieroglyphics but also a young seer from 3,400 years ago, named Fortune, depends on them to seal the future. An evil cult with fearsome crocodile-headed bodyguards kidnaps them to help find the Lost Prophecies, containing the secret of eternal life. Danger lurks everywhere, but, predictably, the intrepid pair survive to brace themselves for their next adventure.

Admirers of Paula Leyden’s prizewinning first novel, The Butterfly Heart, will enthusiastically return to Zambia in The Sleeping Baobab Tree (Walker, £5.99). Bul-Boo is the scientific protagonist while her twin sister, Madillo, is more attuned to the traditional beliefs of Nokokulu, the eccentric great-grandmother of young Fred, next door. Nokokulu takes Fred to the Place of Death, and the twins hide in the car boot. The journey coincides with the mysterious disappearance of local people, including Fred’s aunt, who suffer from Aids. What really happened during that terrifying night at the burial ground? The children’s shadowy memories of a two-legged hyena defy rational explanation.

Underlying the strangely captivating adventures is a deadly serious modern story of Aids sufferers’ vulnerability when tradition and modernity coincide. Leyden is a born storyteller.

Only Sheena Wilkinson’s Too Many Ponies (Little Island, £4.99) escapes the lure of the science-magic formula in these holiday reads. She breathes fresh life into a pony tale set in Northern Ireland.

Lucy envies the cool riding kit of trendy fellow students. Her friend Aidan’s sanctuary for abandoned horses, Rosevale, is distinctly unfashionable and perennially short-funded. Lucy falls prey to the petty snobbery and Aidan loses his self-confidence, but all is well when Lucy finds a way to save Rosevale, though not the universe.

Mary Shine Thompson chairs the board of the Imram Irish Language Literature Festival.

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