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“I didn’t believe her when she told me stories of the wood, what a strange place it is – but she’s gone there, and she’s gone for good. Four days ago she went away. She won’t come back. And I’m a dead man, as good as. I’ve seen what’s happened to her”

“She’s been gone for a year and a half, Jim. She was gone a year when you turned up again.” Richard felt awkward. “You were gone for a year yourself…”

As the much harassed cat in Pépé Le Pew cartoons used to exclaim “Le Sigh”. Folks, some days are tougher than others. I never expected to still be doing this on the cusp of December, with Christmas only a short few weeks away. When I resigned from my job back in Ireland, just before we took off for our new life here in Australia, I fully expected to have found myself new employment by now.

But here we are and I still have not heard anything about my status. Tis wearying.

That’s probably why I was in such a bad mood while reading this book.

Richard Bradley came home one rainswept evening to witness a woman leave his family’s home, carrying what looked like a bow and running off into nearby Ryhope Wood. This is only the first of a number of strange events that effect the Bradley, all appearing to centre around Richard’s precocious son Alex. After a school stage production of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the family’s car nearly runs over the presumed dead James Keeton, wearing nothing but a bathrobe. Mysteriously Keeton has been missing for over a year. He disappeared shortly after his daughter Tallis, a close friend of Alex’s, also vanished. Yet Keeton shows no signs of having aged. Even his bathrobe is almost brand new, not the tattered rag it should have been after a year of sleeping rough.  What’s more he claims he has only been gone for several days.

The wildeyed Keeton whispers to young Alex cryptic babble about his missing daughter, insisting that she is still alive, but elsewhere, in another world. During one of Alex’s visits to the hospital Keeton is seized by a vision of his daughter, now old and dying in this other world and dies, with the boy left in a near catatonic state by the experience. Soon Richard is forced to commit his son to the same son Keeton was recovering in. Then he too vanishes.

Unable to comprehend what has happened Richard retreats into himself, having accepted as the years pass that Alex is dead, refusing to dwell upon the uncanny circumstances of his disappearance. Then a team of explorers studying the nearby wood attempt to recruit Richard. They claim that Alex is still alive and living within the wood itself, but refuse to divulge any more than that. Also the woman he saw leaving his house in 1959 is among them, but she has no memory of this event.

What follows is a journey into the collective unconscious of Britain, the wood itself housing a number of archetypes from British mythology, including a shapeshifting ur-Jack The Giant Killer, a trickster god similar to the sylvan Puck and Robin Hood. When the team reveals they are following the notes of a researcher of the wood named ‘Huxley’, who was a contemporary of Carl Jung’s, this information being relayed to Richard by a Frenchman named Lacan, I have to admit I let out a groan. It turns out the explorers are not so much interesting in the Bradleys out of sympathy for their plight, but because the mind of Alex has begun to manifest new elements, or ‘mythagos’, within the wood. In effect, they see the child as a corruptive influence on the dreamworld Huxley studied.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has a lot of writing about trees. Of course, he saw his books as an elegy to an England lost, with both its mythology and countryside overrun by the modern world. Holdstock seems to be attempting a similar project and while I applaud its sincerity, I found it too derivative. Revealing that Jason and the Argonauts are actually a bad bunch of boyos is I guess meant to be shocking, but the idea that childhood heroes are actually too good to be true is hardly original. What’s worse it undercuts the pretense of Jungian themes.

Overall I found this book dull and pretentious.

Annie wasn’t a hero. She was ten years old and had long blonde hair and blue eyes, and her father said she’d make an excellent damsel one day. He had her practicing her screams every morning for an hour and said they were the best he had ever heard. But now her father was missing and there were no heroes available, and her mother wouldn’t stop crying.

For my final review of Children’s Literature Week I have chosen S.E. Connolly’s debut, Damsel published by Mercier Press. It is a short and sweet fantasy tale about a girl setting out to rescue her father from an evil wizard. If ever you found yourself reading Harry Potter and wondering why Hermione Granger wasn’t the main character instead the bumbling eponymous wizard messiah, I reckon this is a neat corrective. More than that though, it’s an excellent first novel from a young Irish writer, whom I hope to see more from some day.

Angelina Cerestina Tiffenemina Brave (aka Annie) is a young damsel-in-training who’s famous father was once a mighty hero. Having promised his wife that his adventuring days were behind him, he focused on raising a family and writing his guide to becoming a hero, so that other young men could learn from his experiences. Then one day he heard the wizard Greenlott was loose on a rampage and set off to defeat the evil mage. When he did not return, a messenger arrives at the Brave household with the news that Tristan Brave had been captured.

As Greenlott has already defeated most of the heroes in the land, Annie takes it upon herself to vanquish him. She sets off accompanied only by her ‘fiery’ pony Chestnut and her dog, Squire, as well as an incomplete copy of her father’s guide to being a hero. Following the advice in the book she manages to evade threats including under-bridge trolls, giant spiders and dragons. She also learns the dangers of kissing a frog. Along her travels she befriends Roger, who claims to be a prince and while he does carry a sword, is not altogether reliable. Can a girl be a hero? Or has Annie nothing better to look forward to than screaming for rescue and looking pretty?

In the interest of full disclosure, the author’s sister is a friend of mine. She was pleasantly surprised when I reported back to her how much I enjoyed reading Damsel, assuming that I was just being kind. If anything, I found it to be a fun and inventive tale that pokes fun at the standards of romantic fantasy. Annie does not mind being a damsel as such, but she would prefer to have a choice as to whether she could be a hero. Throughout the book she is frustrated with how the folk they encounter assume Roger is the real hero, despite his occasional cowardice and bookish manner. The author cannily does not allow the dynamic between them to be too one-sided. Sometimes Roger helps Annie escape from danger, but when you need someone to risk life and giant spider-goo, she’s your girl.

I will happily continue to sing this book’s praises and have already foisted copy onto my in-laws. It is a sweet and rewarding tale, with a neat wry tone and some beautiful illustrations from Axel Rator.

This being the last entry in Children’s Literature Week, I would just like to say I’ve had a great time reviewing these books and I hope you enjoyed reading ‘em. Just because a writer writes for children, it doesn’t mean the books should be silly and unimportant. Often the most important things we learn during our lives we first discover as children. The books we read should be equally as enriching and inspiring. Cheers folks.

Arthur was also counting on the promised intervention by ‘Will’, who he supposed was the same person or entity as ‘The Will’, that Mister Monday and Sneezer had talked about, who he presumed was also the giver of the Atlas. He figured that if he could get close to the House, it would do something to help him get inside.

So I see from this book’s Author’s Note, that Garth Nix was born in Melbourne. I am of the opinion that many fine things can be found there and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. The first in a series of novels called The Keys to the Kingdom, this is the second fantasy franchise by the gifted Nix. A few years ago I began to see copies of his Old Kingdom trilogy – Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen – everywhere in bookstores. Sadly I never tried them out (I was wary due to a glut of Harry Potter imitations at the time), but after I have finished this run, I reckon Mr Nix is going to become a fixture of my bookshelf.

The book opens with an Inspector going about his duties inspecting the security of a very special item. Of course, this being a fantasy novel, the item in question is a paragraph from a very special Will. It is secured locked inside a crystal cage. Surrounded by a number of metal sentinels. On a dead star. The Inspector himself, is no ordinary bureaucrat, but a winged servant of a higher power who is partial to snuff. Shortly after his arrival the living aspect of the Will of creation manages to effect a jailbreak and escape to Earth, with Mister Monday’s determined lieutenants Dawn, Noon and Dusk hot on its trail.

Meanwhile during Arthur Penhaligon’s first day at a new school, he collapses due to an asthma attack. After he is revived by a girl named Leaf, he witnesses the arrival of the strange Mister Monday, who is tricked by the Will into giving the boy a mystical minute hand and a mysterious atlas. Arthur is expected to die soon, so it is hoped that his frail condition will allow the artifacts to revert back to Mister Monday shortly thereafter, neatly allowing the trustee of these objects to avoid any punishment for allowing the Will to escape. The minute hand is in fact a magic key that can effect the will of its user. The atlas can only be read by a bearer of the key and explains the nature of the House, a structure that represents each level of reality. The world Arthur knows is only the second plane of this structure, there are many others above and below, sitting atop the vast chthonic Nothing that spawns the mysterious creatures Mister Monday uses to control his realm.

Arthur is surprised to find his asthmatic condition is relieved whenever he holds the key in his hand. Unfortunately Leaf’s family and a number of other children at school fall victim to a mysterious plague. Learning that the disease is being spread by agents of Mister Monday as they hunt for him, Arthur travels to the weird House that has appeared in his neighbourhood that only he can see. Inside he discovers a world of magic far bigger than the walls that contain it, filled with fallen angels, a talking frog, dog-faced men, dinosaurs and deadly Bibliophages. A world where words have power and little children enslaved by the legendary Piper have toiled for thousands of years. Determined to save the lives of his friends and defeat the corrupt Mister Monday, Arthur strives to find the secret of the Will.

This is an entertaining first chapter in a series of novels for children. Nix drops references to ancient myths, religion and modern day paranoia about disease in order to give shape to his world. Arthur Penhaligon is an orphan whose biological parents died in a flu epidemic. At one point he travels in time to the period of the Bubonic plague. Death is a constant in his life and is used within the book to fuel the mythic fantasy Nix has constructed.

While a Christian God is never explicitly named, the hierarchies of angels, from Seraphim down to Cherubs, resemble the mysterious figures Arthur meets. Nix also draws on Roman myth, as Monday and his servants resemble the quotidian minor gods of days and hours.

I cannot wait to read Grim Tuesday.

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