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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A nice book for kids for the holidays

xmas-1-2Regular visitors to this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature. My children are part of the generation that grew up with Harry Potter. JK Rowling is one of my heroes, for a number of reasons, but primarily for all that she has done to get (and keep) children reading, particularly those who might otherwise not have done so. Harry Potter wasn’t the first literary character to bring wizarding and magic into children’s literary lives, however. The Snow Spider was first published 30 years ago and was a multiple award winner. It was originally published as a trilogy, but this anniversary volume has been issued as a stand-alone. I chose it for the book club I run at my daughter’s primary school.

It’s set in Gwynedd, rural Wales, where our central character, nine year-old Gwyn Davies, lives on a farm with his parents. It starts on the morning of Gwyn’s birthday with his grandmother, the eccentric Nain, giving him five gifts: a brooch, a broken wooden horse, a yellow scarf, a piece of seaweed and a tin whistle. It turns out that these rather unusual tokens are in fact a kind of test, designed to determine whether Gwyn has inherited the magical powers that run in the family line but which have now missed several generations.

We learn that Gwyn’s birthday is usually a quiet and fairly sombre affair because it is the anniversary of his elder sister’s disappearance, four years earlier. Bethan went out in search of a pet lamb belonging to her little brother, after he begged her to do so, and never returned. Gwyn’s father blames Gwyn for his beloved daughter’s disappearance and has since become a cold and distant figure in his son’s life.

Gwyn soon finds that he does indeed possess certain magical powers and each of the gifts given to him by Nain has an individual significance, a power he must explore and learn about. The first sign he receives is when the brooch becomes a delicate and beautiful silver spider, Arianwen. The spider becomes his guide and companion throughout the rest of the book and on his journey of self-discovery. The broken horse unleashes some malevolent forces that Gwyn must learn to control – this is a very high-action chapter! The yellow scarf, which had belonged to his sister and was the only sign of her left on the hills after she vanished, attracts Bethan back into the family’s life, but in an abstract way; Eirlys is introduced about halfway through the book when she arrives at Gwyn’s school, apparently an orphan. She lives with a family in the village, but after becoming trapped in a storm finds herself spending some days with Gwyn and his family. Eirlys clearly reminds Gwyn’s father of his missing daughter and her presence brings about a softening in his relationship with his son.

The children in the book club had mixed feelings about The Snow Spider. Some did not like it at all – one even abandoned it! For others I think it was perhaps rather gentler than their usual reading, with not quite enough “action”. Compared to many of the books published today it has a certain innocence that I confess made me rather nostalgic! I loved the sense of place; rural Wales, with all its traditions of myth and magic is beautifully evoked, and the characters are well-drawn and familiar.

The recommended age group for this book is 8-12 years, but I feel it would probably work best for children at the younger end of that spectrum, and it’s a lovely one to read aloud together; some of the keener children in the book club raced through it (it’s quite short) and I think this may have compromised their enjoyment. I think it also helps to have an adult to discuss the book with as it deals with some challenging themes, not least the disappearance of a child. Gwyn’s relationship with his parents, particularly his father, is quite a tricky issue, as is the question of acceptance by peers (once Gwyn’s ‘visions’ become playground gossip, he is teased by some of the other children). Also, Gwyn’s discovery of his magic after his 9th birthday is, I think a metaphor for puberty and adolescence, which may resonate with children approaching double figures.

It is a lovely book that I think quieter, perhaps more thoughtful children will enjoy, or children who like to read with an adult. But it isn’t Harry Potter!