Kids book review: “A Whisper of Horses” by Zillah Bethel

If you have children aged 10-12 years, I can heartily recommend this book. It’s marvellous; dark in parts (but don’t kids love that?!), but ultimately full of hope and showing that you can achieve the near-impossible if you dare to believe.

a whisper of horses imgThe novel is set in Lahn Dan, you’ll recognise the pun, but the place described in the book will be unfamiliar; it is practically a separate city-state within England, encircled by the ‘Emm Twenty-Five Wall’ that none of the inhabitants dare cross (told that there is only a deserted wilderness on the other side anyway). This is a time after ‘the Gases’ (a reference to climate change), the ‘Tems’  has deteriorated to a muddy flat and only the rich are able to live in the ‘crystal towers’  that afford them some natural light and allow them to live above the pollution layer. In a nod to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World there is a strict hierarchy in the society: at the bottom are the Pbs, who do most of the work, then slightly higher up are the Cus, the professional classes, but true power lies only with the Aus. Give the child a prize who spots that these are chemical symbols and what this says about the social order! Lahn Dan is run by ‘the Minister’ a distant and slightly mythical figure, not unlike Big Brother, whose orders are carried out by Mordecai and his Secret Police. It all has echoes of 1984.

The main character is Serendipity Goudge a 12 year-old girl who lives alone with her mother. They are Pbs and do agricultural work. They live in a ‘pod’ and have very few possessions, though Serendipity cherishes a small wooden horse her mother once gave her; she is fascinated by the creatures but they are said to be extinct and nobody has ever seen one in the flesh. Serendipity’s mother dies, leaving her nothing of any value except a locket. Hidden inside the locket is a small map indicating a route out of Lahn Dan, through the Emm Twenty-Five Wall to ‘Whales’ via the ‘HH Bridge’  to a place where there might be horses. Strictly speaking, Serendipity, as an orphan, should be taken into care, but Professor Nimbus, her ‘storyteller’ (the children get a very limited education), takes her under his wing as his apprentice. It quickly becomes apparent that this situation is not sustainable and that Serendipity’s life is in danger. She decides that she will try to escape Lahn Dan, initially with the help of the Professor, who confesses that he, along with a small group of others, is a secret agitator for change.

By chance, they meet up with Tab, and his funny little dog Mouse. Tab is part of a band of Smugglers with a camp on the other side of the Wall. Tab is like something out of Oliver Twist, a street-wise orphan who helps Serendipity escape the city. They reach his community’s encampment, but it becomes clear that Tab may also be in danger and so he decides to accompany Serendipity on her search for horses in Whales.

The rest of the book is about their quest to fulfil a dream, but, though they don’t realise it at the time, they are also looking for a better life, outside the corrupt, polluted, decrepit city of Lahn Dan. En route they come across things they have never seen before – green fields, rain, a train, fresh food. It is a story about love and friendship – initially, Serendipity and Tab do not trust each other, but they soon come to realise that their fates are entwined and that they are better as a team. The people they meet along the way  help and encourage them on their journey. The novel also has great suspense; once the authorities realise that there has been an escape, they pursue Serendipity, and nearly catch her several times.

Spoiler alert!

Serendipity reaches her goal in the most magical and unexpected way, not immediately, but many years after she has settled happily in Whales, in a brief and beautiful moment that made me cry! 

This is a fabulous book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading – kids and adults alike will enjoy spotting all the references, the links to current concerns in its themes (the importance of community, climate change, the social and economic separation of London from other regions of the country). The pace is perfect for the 9-12 age group, the characters are well-rounded, credible and fun, and I loved all the nods to other books – this would be a great introduction to titles they might come across later in life.

Highly recommended.

[My copy of this book was very kindly sent to me by the author after I posted a review of her other novel The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare which I also enjoyed and recommend.]

What sort of books do your kids like reading?

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Kids book review: “The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare” by Zillah Bethel

The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare imgThis book is set in a familiar country (England) but in a future time where life has changed and the world is very different: bus journeys cost hundreds of pounds, many routine tasks and jobs are carried out (not very well) by robots and everyone carries a QWERTY, which it seems is some next generation pocket computer. Auden Dare is an eleven year-old school boy who lives with his mother in Forest Gate in east London. When we first meet him we learn that his father is away fighting in the war in Europe. Climate change has taken hold and water is scarce. Indeed, water, or the lack of it, seems to be the root cause of the conflict in which Auden’s father is involved. Auden has a condition called achromatopsia, which means he is unable to see colours, only shades of grey.

Auden and his mother move to Cambridge when Auden’s uncle, Dr Jonah Bloom, his mother’s brother and a brilliant scientist, dies and leaves them his cottage. She sees it as an opportunity for them to make a fresh start. When they arrive at the cottage, however, they find that it has been ransacked, as have his rooms at Trinity College, where he worked. It is clear that there is something amiss. Auden makes a friend at his new school, Vivi, who, it turns out, also knew Dr Bloom very well. The two young people decide there is something suspicious about Jonah Bloom’s death and set about to uncover the mystery.

Very soon Auden and Vivi discover that Dr Bloom had invented a robot, Paragon, which they find in a secret chamber underneath the garden shed in the cottage garden. Initially, Auden believes that his uncle was in the process of inventing a machine that would enable Auden to see in full colour. However, it turns out that the robot, in fact, has a much higher purpose.

This book is part adventure story, part mystery and has all the usual tropes you would expect from a children’s book of that nature: a brave and bold character in Auden, a brilliant female mind in the form of Vivi, an external threat in the form of the Water Allocation Board, which also wants to get hold of Dr Bloom’s work and in particular the robot Paragon, and a race against time, with moments of high tension. There are underlying themes here around the power of friendship to overcome adversity and how individuals can take control of their own lives and defy the destiny society has decided for them. It is also about taking a stand and doing the right thing.

As a rule of thumb, kids like reading books about characters who are slightly older than them; Auden is 11, but I would say this is a book for 10-12 year olds, rather than 9-11s. For a start it’s quite long and the plot is at times quite complex. Also, some of the themes may be quite challenging for younger readers, for example, the vision of the future, a kind of police state where the head of the Water Allocation Board is hostile and threatening. There is also the suggestion that Dr Jonah Bloom has been illegally murdered by the state and that Auden’s father has been wrongfully imprisoned by a corrupt military authority. Echoes of 1984!

Spoiler alert….

Also, the robot, Paragon, who develops a strong personality and whom Auden grows to love, ‘dies’ when he self-destructs after fulfilling his purpose as a rainmaking machine. Younger children might find some aspects of the book challenging or unsettling.

In places it is really funny; it reminded me a little of Time-travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford, so kids who enjoyed that book might like this one too (although for me it’s not quite as good or as well-written).

Recommended for 10-12 year olds who like an adventure mystery and can cope with some threat.

If you or your children have read this book, do you agree with my thoughts about the reading age?

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