The Peco Incident
The Travelling Restaurant: Jasper’s Voyage in Three Parts
Gecko Press, $24.99,
Nina Questor: The Battle Has Begun
To become a hero – that could well be the secret wish of many readers who enjoy stories of mystery and adventure. They may luxuriate in success by proxy, without discomfort or public pressures. The four junior novels under review offer such opportunities. The protagonists in their different ways face challenges to prove themselves and save their world from disaster, either natural or man-made following the abuse of power.
Many horse stories embrace heroics, and true and semi-fictional stories praise world-famous horses like Secretariat, Sea Biscuit, and Phar Lap. However, surprisingly few junior novels focus on horse racing. Yet the early, seminal novels about teenagers taming, training and riding a difficult horse to victory remain in print: Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet (1935), immortalised in film by Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney; Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion series (1941 onwards, 21 titles); and Mary O’Hara’s My Friend Flicka trilogy (1943 onwards).
Now along comes Adele Broadbent’s Just Jack, based authoritatively on her grandfather’s experiences, and probably the first in New Zealand junior fiction about the racing industry. In 1930, Wee Jack (14) suffers from the common problem of having a bigger, stronger, more successful older brother. But Jack has a way with horses and a burning ambition to prove himself by becoming a winning jockey. His family secure him work away from home with Mr Mac in Hastings where his diligence turns him into merely a stable-hand drudge. A shift to Laddie’s Napier stable brings him closer to his goals through track work.
Broadbent’s voice is fresh, convincing, and distinctive. She unerringly unfolds her storyline, deftly interweaving the clash of personalities and events around the daily horse routine. She draws her characters with clarity and sympathy: surly Mr Mac, more kindly Laddie and his shy daughter Violet, unhappy housekeeper Mrs Davis, Jack’s supportive mates, and his bullying rival, deceitful, damaged and damaging Kenny. In the lead-up to the main crisis, she successfully handles a moment of some levity (for the reader) when Jack attempts to halt his growth by drinking gin. So when the disastrous 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake strikes, the story intensifies through contrast, especially for today’s readers coping with the plight of Christchurch.
Now Jack shows his mettle in saving his world. He lifts a beam off Laddie’s leg with the help of the frightened mare Copper, ensures Laddie’s removal to the makeshift hospital at the racecourse, soothes Violet, and helps in rescue and recovery despite his wounds. Family and associates are impressed by his heroism, horse skills, and resourcefulness.
Nevertheless, the novel ends on a less thrilling note than do the racing novels mentioned above. Despite Jack’s ambition and expectations from the beginning, his first race is still only a promise in a month’s time. So is a sequel planned? Readers will be looking for it.
In Des Hunt’s contemporary, action-packed 10th novel The Peco Incident, Danny and his visiting ADHD cousin Nick (both 13) have to prove themselves brave and inventive to save their world from ecological disaster. They discover that two fanatical hippies from Scotland are hell-bent on eradicating caged-bird farming by introducing to the unique yellow-eyed penguin and albatross colonies on the Otago Peninsula deadly bird flu, via contaminated eggs and viral sprays. Hunt shows clearly that such thinking is madness, and that New Zealand must enforce all security measures at customs and checkpoints concerning endangered species.
Indeed, Hunt could well have turned this story into a tract. His description of the revolting conditions at the Peninsula Egg Company (Peco) farm justifies opposition to battery farming. But he persuasively weaves his storyline around a large number of characters ranging from admirably supportive parents and friends to contrasting public officials. Inevitably, some characters are one-dimensional, notably the greedy, blustery chicken farmer and councillor Bryce Shreeves. However, the boys carry the drive of the story. Danny’s caring role in their relationship is nicely handled. Nick’s out-of-the-ordinary, impulsive enthusiasms serve well to further the plot. For example, he recklessly breaks into the Peco farm to photograph the doomed birds, hoping to establish the source of bird flu.
The story gathers pace with each development. Even Old Murph’s beloved caged birds fall victim, though not his amusing talking parakeet, Harriet the Parriet. Danny’s parents responsibly notify the Bio-security Incident Response Team, and the media swoop in, intrusive and slanted, but providing humour to relieve tension as gun-toting hippy Brio furthers her mad schemes to exercise destructive power.
A wildly exciting midnight scramble around the Taiaroa cliffs delivers tough justice to Brio – almost total paralysis from a fall. Moreover, Danny rescues her from drowning, intending she should realise how much suffering she has caused. Both Danny and Nick are the heroes of the hour, but it’s Harriet who steals centre-stage. As a carrier but not victim of the virus, she provides a serum capable of saving most of the albatross colony. She also becomes a media star with her saucy comments and salty language. Thus the novel ends on a jaunty as well as warm note since Danny realises how much hyperactive Nick now means to him.
In Barbara Else’s The Travelling Restaurant, Jasper (12) lives in mysterious circumstances in the troubled fantasy otherworld of Fontania, now overtaken by the “Provisional Monarch”, Lady Gall. He wants to prove he is ordinary. However, he discovers he is of royal blood and, along with his little sister Sibilla and Uncle Trump, a possible inheritor of his grandfather’s essential magic power that identifies the rightful ruler of Fontania. Jasper’s quest to save his world from the usurper begins when his mother and father (Dr Ludlow) are imprisoned and Sibilla is kidnapped. Armed with his royal dagger, Jasper seeks sanctuary with Dr Rocket and Polly on the Travelling Restaurant, which encounters storms, pirates, and troublesome monkeys as it sails around the coast and islands of Fontania. (A welcome map is included.)
Disaster has struck Fontania seven years previously after an explosion: a scientific experiment has gone wrong. The Great Accident destroyed Eastern Lake and the magic maintaining an ideal kingdom. Lady Gall outlaws all magic. Yet magic remains Jasper’s source of salvation, thanks to two dragon-eagles. The younger one secretes itself in the anchor well of the Travelling Restaurant, and enables the boat to survive being sucked down by the whirlpool to the underground river and thence out to sea and safety from Lady Gall’s warships. Unrealistic and zany, maybe, but the reader is carried along on the flow of fantasy underpinned by small, accurate, realistic details concerning people and equipment.
Else keeps her tone light, but uses wit, satire, melodrama, and wild actions to carry serious points of view, especially about power and corruption. She portrays Lady Gall as a typical tyrant, supported by bodyguards, police and armies. Say one word about magic or make public criticism, and even children face death or prison. She herself is a distorted pop-idol – a skinny “walking mushroom”, with puffed-up golden hair, pink glittery dress, long, sharp, pink-painted fingernails, and a face needing a daily dose of “beauteen” (read botox) supplied only by Dr Ludlow.
In contrast, the emphasis on delicious food delights everyone as the story romps along through its three parts: “Breakfast on the Travelling Restaurant”; “Lunch with the Secret Prince”; “Barbecue with the True Crown”. Jasper often uses tasty food for bribery in his rescues. Brave and resourceful, he is finally challenged to prevent Lady Gall from being crowned. Of course, good prevails. Lady Gall comes to a dissolving end, and a community barbecue takes place. Jasper, with help, has saved Fontania.
Some centuries into our future, Ken Catran’s Nina Questor, following Nina of the Dark (2009), explores the ongoing corrupting nature of power. Nina (20), having defeated the Ruts, must now prove herself worthy of being Queen by saving her world from the witchers, a minor presence in book one. Many elements are familiar to readers of high fantasy and epic tales – blackened, battle-devastated Broken Lands; dirty, medieval-like Market Towns; and Sky Claw Mountains, their caves stuffed with every precious jewel imaginable. Food is mainly bread and cheese. Travel is on foot or on horseback, or when Nina has to cross great mountains, on the back of a winged dragon.
Dominating this world from their stronghold in Sky Claw are the all-powerful witchers and their vicious giant creations, such as spiders, scorpions, trolls, triffid-like plants, vapour-like spectral forms, and a lindworm that destroys Castle Lilybank with earthquake-like ferocity. The witchers themselves are the result of former human experiments with computer-developed robots and DNA. Tall and chillingly beautiful, they enjoy killing humans for sport, have no compassion or religious-type faith, but they experience fear of losing power. Their class structure is familiar: the two gold ones hold supreme power; the silver few, like ambitious Apollonaire Life-Singer, have considerable power; and the bronze many have a little. All need to be recharged daily through an immortal heart, an advanced form of power – maybe nuclear – appearing as blazing blue-fire.
Nina, with hair like sunlight on snow, carries Brightstone, a magic sword whose secret remains undiscovered, and wears Lightskin, a magic vest, for protection. She relies on thumb-pricking or thought-waves to indicate danger. She proves herself courageous, loyal to her companions, and uncorrupted by Apollonaire’s promise of queendom and by Orcona’s offer of untold riches. She agonises over deserting her daughter, wrestles with the morality of killing, but kills the golden, resplendent, Louis-Quatorze-style witcher, and is overcome. Her various companions, like Fell, alias Prince Jaydon, also succumb, but not the immortal heart sustaining the witchers. Nina has only temporarily succeeded in saving her world.
Catran drives his story with compelling imagery. Broken sentences and the present tense are effective at climactic moments, less so in general narrative. A prologue connects book two to book one, and the mysterious voice of Other-Nina conveys information and the crux of the novel: “We believed only in power – so power overtook us. Power became our destroyer.” Norbon Scribe too, facing death, leaves messages for Nina to find. Above all, he reveals that the greatest fear of the witchers is the return of human faith in One Force, the Biblical concept. The Epilogue, 10 years after Nina succumbs, indicates a concluding novel will feature her daughter, Young Nina.
Characters proving themselves and heroically saving their worlds make all four novels exciting, thought-provoking, and enjoyable, while the focus on the inherent corrupting nature of power is relevant today.
Diane Hebley is a Taradale reviewer.