Doors and mirrors, Alex Mitcalfe Wilson 

The Chosen One
Joy H Davidson
DHD Publishing, $27.00,
ISBN 9780473448301

Harsu and the Werestoat
Barbara Else
Gecko Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781776572199

The World of Greek Mythology
Ben Spies
Spies Publishing, $20.00,
ISBN 9780473455866

Fantasy has always mattered to me. I first sensed this around the same time I realised I was completely ill-adapted to my 1990s New Zealand childhood. I was a fat kid, a nervous perfectionist who was frightened of rugby and wanted to wear dresses. Most days, it felt like the sky was going to fall on my head. Luckily, I knew a few adults who were sensitive enough to notice my constant unease, and thoughtful enough to feed me stories. Those books were a magic door at the back of my wardrobe, the escape-hatch every lonely kid needs.

In those early years, I had Dinotopia and Redwall at bedtime, a cassette of The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader from my grandmother, parcels of Moomin books from my aunt. I can’t remember the first time I imagined myself walking into their illustrations, eating barley cakes with talking mice, or becoming some kind of stylish and evil sorcerer princess. To be honest, I don’t think anyone ever convinced me to stop playing make-believe, then or now. But fantasy is of this world, as much as it helps me to escape it. In The Stillness, in Lyra’s World, in The Other Lands and Earthsea, all the chaotic histories of power and violence which mar our reality are refracted into strange new colours. My journeys through those worlds have taught me to ask what a story unsettles, what lines of flight it sketches for its readers, because these books are mirrors, as well as doors. 

The Chosen One, by Joy H Davidson, is the first volume in the Nowhere In Particular trilogy. It tells of a fretful girl named Milly, who is uprooted from the city when her parents inherit her grandmother’s farm. There, Milly befriends the mysterious Max and Poppy, two children who are invisible to her parents and who hail from the strange land of Particular. 

When Poppy goes missing, Milly journeys to Particular to rescue her friend and discover the destiny which connects her family to that magical place. 

Davidson imagines Particular as the realm from which all unexpected things enter our world, whether garden weeds, imaginary friends or nasty frights. Her love for this idea is palpable, and Milly’s first experience of Particular strikes the story’s most charming notes. That world, and Milly’s journey within it, has shades of Oz and Narnia, but the book’s colour plates, by Nina Kudinova, do much to emphasise its distinctness, capturing Davidson’s vision with sensitivity and elegance. 

As its title suggests, The Chosen One is a hero’s journey. This is a writerly niche that brooks stiff comparisons. Unfortunately, The Chosen One does not distinguish itself in its storytelling. Davidson’s writing is too often slowed by unnecessary description. In one sequence, Milly meets a woman who is “petite, gentle, pretty, hair beautifully arranged and a wonderful hostess who made everyone feel loved and welcome”. This is a lot to take in: too much told and too little left for the reader to discover. Such moments interrupt The Chosen One’s rhythm, where leaner writing would build tension. 

At other times, the story is derailed by editorialising, when its supporting cast deliver lines such as “A girl should always be prepared for the unexpected, because you never know what life’s adventures will throw your way”, or “If you believe in yourself, you have the power to do anything”. A little of the motivational-poster register is a commonplace thing in fantasy writing, but these lines come too often for credibility, or for impact. Instead, they rankle. Their uniform tone, whether delivered by Poppy or Max, by ancient gargoyles or the ghost of a medieval squire, also erodes the characters’ distinctness. They crowd out the downbeat, authentic interactions through which captivating relationships and personalities can emerge. 

Some characters are reduced to caricatures. Davidson’s principal bad guys, the pagans, are a group of evil sorcerers and witches, whose motivations are too thinly sketched for empathy. We are merely told that they don’t practise “traditional religions” and that they sacrifice children and pets – an unfortunate combination of behaviours of which most marginalised groups in history have been accused. The pagans include rather too many hook-nosed crone caricatures for comfort, but their servants, the gremlins, are even more jarring. They are a species of goblinoid sub-humans, who tinker with trash, live underground and speak with what’s described as a mixture of “Irish” and “Old English” accents – rendered in the text as a mix of cod cockney (“whats does we ‘ave ere?”) sprinkled with the dem and dey of blackface minstrel patois. 

With the pagans, Davidson associates religious difference and female ugliness with duplicity and corruption. With her gremlins, she associates class and racialised difference with essentialised evil. In doing this, Davidson leans on tropes that were already awkward in Tolkien, let alone in a world that has read Ursula Le Guin and Philip Pullman. Davidson’s imagination contains beauty and wonder; these images are a disappointment. Like all authors, Davidson is responsible for the horrors she helps her young readers imagine. I hope that the next volume of Nowhere In Particular leans less on these stereotypes and more on her passionate investment in the land of Particular. 

Barbara Else’s Harsu And The Werestoat tells the story of Harsu, who lives an aristocratic life somewhere in the ancient fertile crescent with his mother Daama, the “forty-first daughter of the fifty-ninth daughter of one of the Wind God’s nine thousand or so children”. Daama is a cruel, capricious mother, and a sorceress who transforms into a stoat during her frequent narcissistic rages. These familial pathologies motivate the narrative, with Daama dragging Harsu through time and space to contemporary Aotearoa, to help her kidnap attractive children as an ornament to her toxic femininity. 

Daama is every part the archetypical fairytale witch, and Harsu is built around the fairytale rule of threes. After Daama makes the ancient world too hot to hold her, she and Harsu repeat a prescribed dance of move-and-counter-move to steal Zamuna, Ragnar and then Blanche. Throughout these repetitions, Harsu grows in strength and maturity, to finally thwart Daama’s attempt to steal a fourth child, and defeat her.

Unfortunately, this strict cycling of actions, which is powerful across the brief duration of The Three Little Pigs, becomes draining and repetitious as it plays out across the 200 pages of a novel. The settings change, to a Viking land, to Civil War England and to Aotearoa, but too much of the action is transplanted wholesale between these settings. Daama prepares magic spells, she waits for an attractive child to become separated from their parents, she feeds them enchanted food and she puts them into jars; Harsu complains and tries to sabotage her. In fact, most of the action in Harsu can be reduced to Daama putting children into jars, then taking them out to ask for compliments. The odd, historicised insults she gets in return, “vittle-besom”, or “bug-munching hedge-pig”, are bright flashes of interest among those familiar actions. I wish that the same level of creativity and attention had been lavished on the story’s magical elements, whose wonders are too often buried by generic, vague descriptions like the “Ceremony of the Werestoat” or the “Gate of Time and Place”. 

The children’s characterisation is also thin. Zamuna, Ragnar and Blanche each embody some attribute – like conceitedness or foolhardiness – to the point that their behaviour and subjectivity become irritatingly implausible. Here, again, the mythic register that infuses Harsu, in this case its brightly painted, archetypal characters, shows its incompatibility with the novel’s demand for transparency and psychological acuity. Because the children embody such straightforward qualities, too much of their dialogue becomes predictable, their personalities reduced to a single note of resistance to Daama. Zamuna always boasts and pleads, Ragnar always breaks rules but, until the last, critical moment, their actions are rote and meaningless. 

Harsu mostly plays its action for laughs, but the scenario it establishes, of being trapped in an endless cycle of traumatic repetition, watching other children being stolen into one’s own private hell, is truly horrifying. When Else foregrounds that darkness, allowing her characters to experience moments of authentic human emotion, something powerful emerges. It is an atmosphere of consequential, shocking tension, which gives me hope that Else’s next story will strike sparks off its darkness, rather than leaving it a shadow in the corner of the room. 

The World Of Greek Mythology is Ben Spies’s first book of non-fiction. It surveys the Classical “greatest hits”, taking in the Greek myths of creation, the time of the titans and gods, the coming of humans, the Trojan War, and the Odyssey. 

Spies was 12 years old when the book was released, and his passion for the subject is pure and generous. His writing is vivid, bringing the hot sun and wonder of the Greek tales to life. Spies’s is an engaging, confident voice and he is as friendly and digressive a guide to the material as one could hope for. Crucially, he has a deft hand for data, whether the whakapapa of generations of gods, or the histories and geographies of unfamiliar places, and he measures a fine balance between interesting, necessary detail and narrative propulsion. 

The tone throughout is generally light, with a fair sprinkling of humour. Spies tells jokes with far greater class than most adult writers for the upper-primary market. There is none of the Establishmentarian snarkiness of Horrible Histories, nor the desperate mateyness of The Treehouse series. Where the myths are absurd, Spies finds humour, and he shares that humour with a natural delight that keeps the tales fresh. 

Thankfully, not all the stories are told as comedies. As well as Odysseus and the cyclops, we have Poseidon and Caenis, a woman asking to be made a man so that the male gods will leave her alone. These stories are as nightmarishly unpleasant as they are fantastical, presenting serious challenges in interpreting them for children. Over and over again, Zeus coerces, harasses and abuses, while Hera throws a baby out the window, and atrocities multiply. The horror of these stories is a too-familiar one; their violence is the timeless and exhausting brutality of insecure, fragile power. 

I say these things because too often people ask whether these myths are relevant. The more important question is what relevance we give them in our telling. Spies handles the myths’ cruelty and extremity with the same demureness that I remember from the books of my childhood, wherein creepiness, even abuse, could be shaded as romance or ardour. I think we, as writers, as teachers, as adults, need to go further in naming the violence these myths contain. To be clear, though, I don’t fault a young person for doing no worse than millennia of adult writers who ought to have done better. 

Shivers of inherent darkness aside, I found The World Of Greek Mythology an absolute pleasure to read. It is a wonderfully approachable tool to start a discussion with young people about the ancient world, the mythic archetypes which inform our many literary cultures, and what it means that Hera married Zeus to “take away the shame”. For me, Spies’s writing reforged the strangeness and magic of these stories; I’m excited to see where his passion takes him next. 

Alex Mitcalfe Wilson is a writer from Wellington who trained as a teacher and works in children’s library services.

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Posted in Children, Fiction, History, Literature, Non-fiction, Review
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