Yet another feisty girl heroine leaps, punches and shoots her way through a narrative, accompanied by a soppy, useless teenage boy. Such gender-confounding is now commonplace, and the post-apocalyptic future England is also a familiar starting point. Fortunately, since Scarlett and Albert are the creations of the incomparable Jonathan Stroud, everything that follows their reluctant decision to join forces is fresh and startling.
The Outlaws Scarlett & Browne (Walker Books, RRP£7.99) is the first in a new series, following Stroud’s hilarious-scary ghost-detective series Lockwood & Co, and the wickedly witty Bartimaeus sequence. As the action begins, notorious bank robber Scarlett McCain, aka Alice Cardew, aka Jane Oakley, has killed four men who unwisely tried to rob her. London is now a lagoon, ancient fiefdoms — Wessex, Anglia, Mercia — have been reinstated, and outside the fortified towns of southern England lie the eerie Broken Lands, roamed by wild beasts and renegades. Pursued by the sinister, bowler-hatted militia, Scarlett pauses briefly to rescue a boy locked in an overturned bus surrounded by scattered corpses. As she’s hurrying to pull off a bank job in nearby Lechlade, she plans to ditch Albert Browne pronto, until a wanted poster makes her think again. Can this dreamy dolt really be a dangerous escaped prisoner?
The town of Lechlade is now full of paranoia, rife with crime and suspicious of outsiders. It’s also a trading centre for slaves. One of the pleasures of the series as it progresses will no doubt be seeing how other stopping points on the outlaws’ trail are reimagined. As ever with Stroud, the narrative tone is sophisticated and sardonic, but I did miss the laugh-out-loud humour of his previous books; here is an altogether more sombre vision.
David Almond’s novels are so simple on the surface, so hauntingly mysterious in their depths, that it’s hard to suggest an appropriate age range. The cover for his latest, Bone Music (Hodder, RRP£12.99), looks as though it’s aimed at readers younger than its teenage protagonist. Sylvia Carr and her mother have relocated to the wild countryside beyond Newcastle, and Sylvia bitterly misses her best friend. Slowly, unwillingly at first, she becomes beguiled by the locals and their folk music, particularly by Gabriel, a misfit like herself, who plays a pipe made from an animal bone.
This ancient music seems to awaken echoes of the deep past, summoning visions and spectres. Almond’s attention to the materiality of rock and landscape always anchors the otherworldliness. Not many authors would give a description of the dismemberment of a rotting bird such a tender, romantic aura. In Almond’s telling, even maggots are mystical.
A bone flute also makes a brief appearance in Skin Taker (Zephyr, RRP£12.99), the penultimate novel in Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother series, set in Scandinavia 6,000 years ago. The Stone Age glimpsed in Almond’s novel is here presented in full imaginative detail. Although it’s the eighth in the series, with many returning characters, this can easily be read as a standalone novel, so skilful is the storytelling.
A Thunderstar (meteorite) has struck, killing off wildlife, clan members and whole tracts of forest, a climate catastrophe that has even wiped out the Great Tree in the sky (the aurora borealis). Instructed by a crazed shaman, Torak and Renn, accompanied by their faithful wolf, must venture into the Deep Forest in search of four stones for a ritual. On the way they face danger from traps, enemy tribes, bears and, worst of all, the dreaded Skin Takers who roam the earth in the wake of the Thunderstar. Paver powerfully presents a worldview that’s magical but never primitive, and even ventures into the mind of the wolf as he follows his beloved Tall Tailless (Torak) over the Bright Soft Cold (snow) and Bright Hard Cold (ice).
Leap forward over the millennia and we’re in the northern states of the American west, where it can get just as cold. The linked stories in Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (Faber, RRP£7.99) reveal brief glimpses of teenage lives in rural places where everyone knows everything about everyone. One character obsessively makes a chain of folded chewing gum wrappers, each one poking into the one before. It’s an image of the narrative structure here, where a minor character in one story is filled out in the next. A jealous teenage girl who causes a car crash; a grieving daughter, skating at the winter solstice; a gay boy with amnesia; a victim of horrific abuse: each episode is spotlit with compassion. The focus may be on teenagers, but this is a novel for everyone.
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