NZ Forest Native Birds

I’m sorry I haven’t added to this for years—not since I ruptured my quadriceps in September 2004 and, with my leg in a full cast, spent a lot of time reading, all the while comforting myself with the prospect of having plenty of book reviews to write. The books I read then are packed away so it will be some months before I can get to them. In the meantime I’ve added reviews of some books read since I recovered from my surgery.

13 September 2009:
The books have been back in the house for a good six months and it’s only recently I’ve started writing reviews. Unfortunately few of the books are ones I read while I had my leg in a cast.

Book Reviews by Laraine Anne Barker

The Hunting of the Last Dragon by Sherryl Jordan

The dragon came nearer, its head moving low along the ground, side to side, sniffing. Every time it breathed, it scorched a trail of fire across the earth. Its neck was long, graceful, and glittering like gold. Its wings were folded close against its brilliant body, the wing sections shiny and ribbed like fish fins, the fine bones ending in sharp hooks. The long barbed tail was bent, the bones set crookedly, yet it coiled and uncoiled as slowly and smoothly as a snake. All the dragon's movements were smooth, fluid and fascinating, almost spellbinding in their beauty and their deadliness.

Everyone thinks dragons are extinct—until a fierce flying beast swoops upon the village of Doran, leaving it in flames. Young Jude survives only because, on the fatal day, he went to Rokeby to buy himself a new bow and arrows. Homeless, desperate, and wracked with grief and guilt, Jude joins a travelling fair, where he meets a young Chinese girl, caged and displayed as a freak. Jing-wei, in spite of her humiliating plight, is strong-willed, brave and cunning. She has her own plan for hunting the last dragon. But will it work? What if the dragon lands up merely wounded? Can she help Jude conquer his fear in time to save their world from destruction?

It is Jude himself who tells the story, set in 1356. And this is where problems arise. Jude is an ordinary villager (or peasant) and therefore cannot read or write. Sherryl Jordan’s solution is to have Jude relate the story to a monk, who writes at his dictation. Unfortunately, this poses another problem. All Jude’s greetings and asides to Brother Benedict are included, which tended to jerk me out of the story because, although they do add background flavour and an extra dimension to the story, their presence felt most unnatural in that Benedict simply wouldn’t have been able to write fast enough to get everything down, especially since he would be continually having to refill his quill. But in the face of such powerful story-telling, not to mention the sheer beauty of Sherryl Jordan’s prose, to complain about this seems like nit-picking.

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Exodus by Julie Bertagna

Mara’s island home is slowly drowning beneath storm-tossed waves. As mighty icecaps melt, the Earth is losing its land to the ocean—and Mara knows she and her whole community will soon drown.

However, there may still be hope. For Mara’s favourite occupation is visiting the Weave (a version of the World Wide Web) on her portable cyberwizz (an outdated piece of “virtual reality” type technology, powered by solar batteries) and there she sees something extraordinary—hints of a New World, rising from the sea and reaching into the sky, cities where desperate refugees can surely find safety.

In a frantic bid for survival, Mara and her friends set sail in the ultimate exodus. But Mara’s quest will become something even greater—a journey into humanity’s capacity for good and evil, and a heart-wrenching story of love and loss …

“Intellectually rigorous and bursting with humanity, this is a book to read again and again,” said the Sunday Herald.

What could I possibly add this? Exodus is a truly stunning book, an engrossing read for both young people and adults, and deserves to win many awards and become a top best-seller. Unfortunately, the latter is unlikely; it’s seldom the best books that become best-sellers.

Warning: If sad stories tend to make you weep, keep plenty of tissues handy. Julie Bertagna tells her story without a hint of sentimentality, but its powerful simplicity is still bound to land some readers in tears.

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Stranger with My Face by Lois Duncan

How can she be in two places at one time?

Laurie was at home, but her boyfriend swears he saw her on the beach with another guy. Her family insists they see her coming and going when she’s been out of the house for hours. Who—or what—is taking over Laurie’s life?

A short blurb on the front cover proclaims: “Someone is watching Laurie, waiting to steal her life.” How could any young reader resist such a line? I certainly couldn’t.

Stranger with My Face, told in first person, starts off more as though it’s going to be a thriller than a fantasy. But as the fantasy element strengthens it becomes steadily scarier, building into a terrifying climax that makes for an exciting, unputdownable read.

This book is definitely intended for young adults (after all, the protagonist is 17 years old) but I suspect most readers will be a lot younger. Few 12-year-olds can resist a really scary story. I certainly couldn’t. I remember reading Jane Eyre (one of the few good books to come my way, purely by accident) and it was the mad woman in the attic rather than the hopeless love between Jane and her employer that kept me turning the pages. J

When I had a look at the reviews on I felt that many give away too much of the plot. But I particularly like Heidi Lott’s review and envy the fact that she obviously had someone around when she was young to point her in the direction of the best books for young readers. Like Heidi, I would also recommend Stranger with My Face to any adult who loves a good story well told.

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Mortal Engines and Predator’s Gold by Philip Reeve

While neither of my paperback editions mentions it, these two books are apparently now being called The Hungry City Chronicles, which suggests there could be more sequels to come.

It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.

Soon the city was lumbering in hot pursuit, a moving mountain of metal which rose in seven tiers like the layers of a wedding cake, the lower levels wreathed in engine smoke, the villas of the rich gleaming white on the higher decks, and above it all the cross on top of St Paul’s Cathedral glinting gold, two thousand feet above the ruined earth.

The beginning of Mortal Engines is set in the City of London in a very distant future when humans have turned their world into huge tracts of wasteland and have resorted to mounting their cities on caterpillar tracks like huge war tanks. Obviously the London of today and this future London are nothing like each other, though the traction London does contain St Paul’s. And I’m afraid, coming as I do from a country that isn’t called The Shaky Isles for nothing, I came unstuck here. I had enough trouble believing in a moving town or city, never mind one that contains a building constructed like St Paul’s. You can place a lightweight house like mine, with its wooden frame, fibrolite (or timber) cladding, Colorsteel roof and plaster board wall linings, onto a truck and move it without shaking it to pieces, but if it was clad in brick the bricks would have to be removed first. It’s difficult enough trying to picture St Paul’s Cathedral moving on its own caterpillar tracks and not being damaged—but imagine all the swaying and jolting to which it would be subjected two thousand feet above the tracks!

However, I’m always willing to force myself into suspension of disbelief if a writer has a good story to tell. Philip Reeve has a more than good story and he tells it very well.

In Predator’s Gold, Tom and Hester, fleeing from the grim aviators of the Green Storm, with the cold of the Ice Wastes seeping into their bones, stumble on the ice city of Anchorage just in time. But Anchorage is not a safe refuge. Devastated by plague, the city is barely lurching along, and the young margravine is making a last desperate bid for survival. She has set a course for the Dead Continent—America…

With the character of the margravine, Reeve brings jealousy (of the extremely destructive type) into the relationship between Tom and Hester. Readers are already aware Hester is no goody-goody heroine, so her flight from Anchorage (and therefore from Tom) and subsequent betrayal of the city to a predator are all the more believable.

Someone on complained about Hester being depicted, on the cover of the American edition of Mortal Engines, with a beautiful, undamaged face, but on the UK editions of both books she is shown with the scarf Tom gave her covering everything below her eyes—a very tasteful touch. My only quibble is that on Mortal Engines it is dark pink and on Predator’s Gold it looks more like brown.

Strangely, both and claim, at the date of writing this, that Predator’s Gold hasn’t yet been published in paperback and give the date of publication as 17 September 2004.

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The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud

The sulphur cloud contracted into a thick column of smoke that vomited forth thin tendrils … There was a barely perceptible pause. Then two yellow staring eyes materialized in the heart of the smoke.

Hey, it was his first time. I wanted to scare him.

The 5,000-year-old djinni Bartimaeus resents being under the power of human magicians, especially when the one who summons him is a mere stripling of a boy. Bartimaeus expects to have to do nothing more taxing than a few simple illusions for Nathaniel But Nathaniel has talent way beyond his years and has something considerably more dangerous in mind: revenge against a magician who made him look a fool. Nathaniel sends Bartimaeus off to steal the powerful Amulet of Samarkand from Simon Lovelace, a master magician of unrivalled ruthlessness and ambition who will do anything to achieve his ends. And so both djinni and apprentice boy wizard are soon caught up in a terrifying flood of magical intrigue, murder and rebellion that makes for a thrilling read for fantasy-lovers of all ages.

The excerpt starting this review comes on the second page, and the whole of the first page is descriptive, much like the first paragraph of the excerpt, so it’s only when you read the last sentence that you realise this is a first-person account. It’s an electrifying introduction to Bartimaeus and sets the scene for the hair-raising and hilarious things that will occur whenever the djinni is around.

However, when the story moves to Nathaniel’s viewpoint, Jonathan Stroud wisely adopts third person rather than trying to imitate the language of a modern young teenager. I found the change a little disconcerting at first but soon became comfortable with it. Sometimes when Stroud makes a switch in viewpoint readers are returned to the beginning of the scene they have just read, which makes for some fascinating contrasts. It’s also probably why the book is rather long, though it never seems so.

The Amulet of Samarkand is a stunning read and I can’t wait to meet Bartimaeus again. He, rather than young Nathaniel, is the “star” of Stroud’s story.

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Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones

The Wizards’ University is short of money. Now that Mr Chesney’s offworld tours have stopped, money from tourism has dried up. Eight years after Mr Chesney’s departure, High Chancellor Querida has left Wizard Derk and his family to run the world and the good-looking Wizard Corkoran to run the University. Having chosen for himself the students whom he thinks are the richest, Corkoran sends begging letters to their parents. But he is in for a shock, for he discovers, after the letters have been sent, that Wizard Derk’s daughter Elda is a huge golden griffin, King Luther’s son is penniless, the Emperor’s sister has been disowned by the Senate, while the dwarf, far from being in possession of a treasure hoard, is a runaway slave.

An even worse shock comes with the first reply from a student’s family—in the form of assassins. The situation quickly hurtles out of control.

Year of the Griffin is a sequel to the award-winning The Dark Lord of Derkholm and is every bit as hilarious, with non-stop action that keeps the reader turning the pages, eager to know what happens next. While it isn’t necessary to have read The Dark Lord of Derkholm first, I think it’s a good idea.

Elda is just as she appears in the first book and has to be one of the most lovable non-human characters Diana Wynne Jones has created—and she is a master at creating such characters. Like all of DWJ’s books, Year of the Griffin makes a great read for adults as well as young people. A quote from the Independent appears on the front cover: “Knocks all rivals into a witch’s cocked hat.” While this is arguable, there are definitely not many writers of fantasy for young people who can match her.

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Abhorsen by Garth Nix

Under the earth a malignant force lies waiting, greedy for freedom from its ancient prison. As the Old Kingdom falls again into a realm of darkness and terror, the people turn in desperation to the Abhorsen, the scourge of the Dead, for deliverance. But Abhorsen Sabriel is lost, missing in Ancelstierre—possibly even dead.

It is up to Lirael, until a few days ago merely a Second Assistant Librarian of the Clayr and now Abhorsen-in-Waiting, to stop the Destroyer’s resurrection. But Lirael, Mogget the cat, the Disreputable Dog and Lirael’s nephew Prince Sameth are trapped in Abhorsen’s House by Chlorr of the Mask, who is in league with the evil necromancer Hedge, who has tricked Sameth’s old friend Nicholas Sayre into helping him dig up Orannis, the Destroyer.

Lirael and her friends must travel across the Old Kingdom in a race against time, battling Shadow Hands and dark necromancers to reach Ancelstierre before it is too late. In the end Lirael has to go deep into Death itself, much deeper than her sister Sabriel ever went. But what hope can one young woman, new to the Abhorsen’s craft, have against a terrible evil with the power to destroy life itself?

Abhorsen is a thrilling and totally absorbing conclusion to The Old Kingdom trilogy and I hope Garth Nix will create more novels set in Abhorsen’s world. Nix admits that talking animals are his favourite characters, and he certainly does these very well.

While it isn’t necessary to have read Sabriel to be able to follow this novel, I would recommend it, and it definitely is necessary to read Lirael first, because Abhorsen is actually a continuation of Lirael, while Sabriel stands on its own.

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Alchemy by Margaret Mahy

I have found myself rather disappointed in Mahy’s recent books—until this one came along. The plot is as complex as anything from Diana Wynne Jones. Susan Price describes the book as “a sinister story of a conjurer and his mysterious cabinet”. The cabinet concerned is one of those boxes into which someone (ostensibly from the audience) climbs and seems to disappear.

Margaret Mahy doesn’t need a gloomy castle to create a creepy, amazingly scary atmosphere. She manages it in an ordinary urban New Zealand house. My home will never seem the same now. J

A Friend pointed out three disturbing inconsistencies in this book that I must admit I didn’t notice myself. Perhaps she read the book in larger chunks than I did. Perhaps, being younger, she simply has a sharper mind. J There is also the possiblity my edition was a later one than hers and the inconsistencies have been fixed. They are as follows:

  1. Roland’s age is given as 17 (and he has a driving licence) and his younger brother Martin was born when he was eight. It is then said Martin is currently seven, which would make Roland 15, not 17.

  2. The gift of six colouring pens, a notebook and a bar of chocolate later becomes six colouring pens, a notebook and a muffin.

  3. Jess says her parents take it in turns to be at the house, and later says she is waiting for both to come home.

It is a sad fact that once a writer becomes famous editors are often too scared to suggest changes. I remember my husband complaining about a Jack Higgins novel in which the protagonist cast his boat from its mooring without first starting its engine. Later, a small aircraft being used by the “goodies” was tampered with in a way the pilot would have discovered when doing his pre-flight check. One could argue that Jack Higgins should have done his homework in both cases because you can hardly expect an editor to know the basic rules of boating, never mind anything about pre-flight checks on aircraft. I wasn’t terribly sympathetic to my husband’s complaint. I simply told him, “That’s what you get when you read best-sellers!”

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Stravaganza: City of Masks by Mary Hoffman

When Lucien, recovering after chemotherapy, is given a marbled notebook to write in because his throat becomes too sore to speak, he little realises it will change his life. He goes to sleep dreaming of Venice and Italy and wakes in the beautiful city of 16th century Bellezza, in the parallel world of Talia. But Bellezza is not without hidden dangers and Lucien gets caught up in efforts to save the city’s Duchessa from enemies plotting to murder her and rule in her place. Lucien can travel between his world and Bellezza only when he is asleep and has the notebook in his possession. When in Bellezza he is free of his illness, enjoying complete good health. But what will happen to him if he can’t get back to his own world in time …?

Mary Hoffman deals sensitively with Lucien’s illness, making this fast-paced and enthralling time-slip novel very moving as well. While adult readers will know exactly what is going to happen to Lucien back in his own world, and this novel is intended for “young adults”, it is likely to also have readers young enough not to guess so easily. The story is told in “omniscient” viewpoint, which changes quite frequently, but the plot unfolds mostly through the eyes of the two main characters so few young readers are likely to be annoyed. A great read for young and not-so-young alike.

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Dragon’s Blood by Jane Yolen

The young dragon turned its black eyes toward him and Jakkin felt as if he could see strange constellations being born in the endless night of its eyes. “Be thou ever my friend,” Jakkin whispered

The dragon answered him with a weak trickle of smoke through its nose slits. It was no more than a patch of light fog, then was gone. But that it was smoke, the first conjurings of the fire of a fighting dragon, Jakkin was sure.

Fifteen-year-old Jakkin is a bond servant in Master Sarkkhan’s dragon barns. Jakkin longs to be free. His only hope of obtaining enough money to free himself seems to be to steal a dragon to train secretly as a fighter. His best bet is to steal an egg, for all hatchlings are accounted for at birth. Unfortunately, a high proportion of eggs are infertile and Jakkin doesn’t get the opportunity to take one, so his only option is to steal a hatchling. And finally fate seems to be on his side …

But what if he is caught? Worse still, what if he finds he doesn’t know enough to train his dragon well enough to become a true champion?

While repelled by the idea of creatures being pitted against each other in the fighting ring for the profit (or pleasure, come to that) of their human owners, I still found this novel, book one in The Pit Dragon trilogy, a thoroughly engrossing read and look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

As so often happens, the publisher of this edition makes no mention of the other books in the trilogy. It isn’t as though there is no room on the last page to list them. Worse still, however, is the omission on the cover of the fact that this is part of a trilogy. Since this novel was originally published in 1982 and this is a 1996 edition, I find the omission particularly unforgivable.

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Eye to Eye by Catherine Jinks

Jansi, scavenging in the desert, stumbles across a Stelcorp star ship embedded in the sand. The ship’s nickname is PIM and it needs Jansi’s help to repair itself. But Jansi has never encountered a star ship before, much less one capable of thinking and talking, and he takes the voice for that of Shaklat, the god of his people, and the star ship for Shaklat’s temple. PIM and Jansi forge an unlikely friendship and when PIM is threatened with destruction by Stelcorp they need all their cunning to stop this happening.

Some people might consider this book to be science fiction (because it features space ships) but it’s probably more accurate to describe it as science fantasy because it’s definitely in the realms of fantasy that humans will ever create a sentient machine of any type, never mind a machine as complex as a space ship.

Catherine Jinks abandons the stark spareness of the writing style used in the Pagan books, which abound with incomplete sentences, while still writing succinctly. I love the way each scene is revealed to the reader first through Jansi’s eyes and then through PIM’s. Jinks is the first writer to use present tense without unsettling me. It worked beautifully in the Pagan books and it works just as well here.

I couldn’t put this book down and was reading well after I should have switched off the light and gone to sleep.

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Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O’Shea

Alas, if submitted to any of today’s publishers, the manuscript of this book would simply be rejected, possibly without even a reading. Why? Well:

  1. It’s far too long—688 pages, which is adult length.

  2. Although it’s marketed for young adults, it contains so many things that don’t belong in a book for young adults: all those creatures more like humans than what they actually are—spiders who wear clothes, for instance. Such characters belong more in books for early middle-grade readers, and younger, than in a long novel for young adults.

  3. Both children seem much older than they are, especially 5-year-old Brigit, who often seems a mature 12.

  4. Both children are too young for a YA audience. There wasn’t any plausible reason (as there was in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy) for this.

  5. Pidge is’t a good name for a protagonist in a YA novel. It’s more suitable for a young middle-grade audience.

However, despite these faults, this book is an enthralling read and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who loves a good story—whether adult, teenager or middle-grade reader.

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Owl by Joanna Orwin

“Owl” finds some ancient Maori drawings in a hidden (and difficult to reach) cave and takes a small stone from the cave’s floor as a keepsake. In doing so he releases a terrifying monster from Maori mythology imprisoned there centuries ago (using the stone Owl has stolen) by a famous Maori chief. It is now Owl’s job, with help from Tama, a young Maori friend, to re-enact the imprisoning of Pouakai.

The Maori mythology Joanna Orwin uses in this book is of her own invention, but is nonetheless as convincing as anything from real Maori legend. For me, Pouakai (Haast’s Eagle) was all the more terrifying because it really did exist until about four centuries ago. I understand three complete skeletons are held at the Otago Museum in New Zealand, the Natural History Museum in London and the National Museum in Wellington.

Joanna Orwin writes very well, but there was no need for the expletive made popular by the (admittedly humorous) Toyota TV commercial because she captures the flavour of New Zealand speech well enough without it. However, if I had children (or grandchildren) I would not stop them reading a book with bad language in it. I am as capable as my mother was of making them understand that such language is unacceptable.

I did find the switch from past tense to present for the big climactic scene distracting. It felt contrived, adding nothing to the story. But I had trouble putting down this book. I do all my reading in bed at night and was turning the pages of Owl long after I should have been asleep.

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Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park

Young Abigail is a fairly typical teenager—blind to the needs of her mother that seem to run contrary to her own needs, and yet concerned enough over the frazzled, tired look on the face of the woman next door to take the neighbour’s children, Natalie and Vincent, off her hands for a while. They go to the park where other children are playing a game they call Beatie Bow. Both Natalie and Abigail are very taken by a strange girl that Natalie calls “the little furry girl”, who is closely watching the game. But the little girl flees, squawking, when they talk to her. Later, wearing a dress she has made from some Victorian crochet lace, Abigail sees the little furry girl again. When the child flees from her she follows—to soon find herself in streets she no longer recognises.

Young readers might find this time-slip novel a little slow to start, even for a book published in the 1980s, but if they persist they will soon find themselves in a thoroughly absorbing, and often terrifying, tale. While it might have surprised Abigail that the undersized, illiterate girl who was always screeching “I’ll punch ye yeller and green!” became someone of considerable importance, I doubt young readers will be surprised. Beatie Bow is a thoroughly unforgettable character and Ruth Park’s prose is always a joy to read.

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Secret Sacrament by Sherryl Jordan

Sherryl Jordan outshines herself.

“In this luminous fantasy, Sherryl Jordan surpasses her award-winning novel The Raging Quiet with a vividly realized story that centers on a young healer, the evocatively named Gabriel, as he moves inexorably toward fulfilling his destiny with a heroic sacrifice.”

So begins an editorial review submitted on But Sherryl Jordan actually wrote Secret Sacrament before The Raging Quiet. It was published in 1996 and shortlisted in the Aim Awards (as I think they were then called) for 1997. In my opinion it should have won not only the award for Best Book for Older Readers but should also have won overall Book-of-the-Year. But then I almost invariably find myself disappointed in the choices made by the judges of New Zealand’s most prestigious annual book awards. A recent addition to these awards is a children’s choice. Unfortunately, instead of allowing children to choose from books published during the year, they’re given only the shortlisted books from which to choose. Not much better than Hobson’s Choice, quite frankly. The children’s choice is also invariably a picture book. I wish more encouragement would be given to readers who have gone beyond needing their fiction illustrated.

Anyway, back to Secret Sacrament. It’s a totally engrossing read for both teenagers and adults. You will never forget Gabriel and even adults will want to keep the book so they can rediscover its delights years later. I would dearly love to have my own copy of the new American edition. Sherryl herself said that her American editor suggested many changes that she wished she had thought of herself. It’s so difficult to imagine how the original book could have been improved.

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Sign of the Lion by Sherryl Jordan

On a bleak and moonless night a man desperate to save his wife from dying in childbirth pledges the unborn child to the only woman he knows is capable of saving her. Twelve years later the woman, whose name is Griselda, returns to claim her reward. Minstrel doesn’t want to leave her mother and father any more than they want to part with her, but she is ambitious and knows she is no ordinary child. How can any child be ordinary when she can see her guardian angel, though nobody else can? She learns all she can from Griselda until the depths of Griselda’s cruel ambition are finally revealed. But leaving Griselda is even harder than Minstrel thought it would be…

I felt Griselda’s eventual defeat was a little abrupt. A bit more could have been made of it. But this story is very haunting, written with all Sherryl Jordan’s usual passion and grace.

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The Ice Boy by Patricia Elliott

A year after his father perished at sea Edward returns to where it happened, staying with his Uncle Hodder. He still hopes to find his father because, although the boat was salvaged, no body was recovered. Straight away strange things happen. Edward meets a mysterious old man who gives him a one-word message for his son. Edward can’t read it; it’s in a foreign language. “My son will know you,” the old man tells Edward. Then Edward helps an exhausted swimmer to shore and takes him to the home of the three elderly Newnes sisters, who run a B&B but are still waiting for their first guest.

Over the sea Edward sees a vision of a land of ice and snow that nobody else can see and sometimes even he can’t. He becomes increasingly sure he will find his father there. The swimmer gives him the opportunity to visit the land. But time is fast running out…

This absorbing fantasy won the last Fidler Award (2001). Woven in with Edward’s story is the Norse myth of the Death of Baldur. Each of the characters in the story has a counterpart in the Baldur legend.

I very much doubt this is Patricia Elliott’s first book, though it’s obviously her first for children or it wouldn’t have been eligible for the Fidler. She has the gift of highly detailed characterisation that isn’t likely to make a middle-grade reader impatient with all the description. The book is also extremely well written. I don’t think there was one point in which I was jerked out of the story by bad grammar or clumsy punctuation—something that happens all too frequently these days.

Finally, as a writer for children myself, I must express my concern that the Fidler Award has been discontinued. There are already few enough awards for children’s writers.

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Excerpts: The Obsidian Quest | Mark Willoughby and the Impostor-King of Lazaronia
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