'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Thursday 18 October 2012

Review: The Children of the King

I was a little daunted launching into a Sonya Hartnett novel - I have never fallen about in rapture over her YA books but was nevertheless interested to see what she could do with a fiction novel for younger readers.

And the verdict? I liked it. A lot.

Perhaps the stunning cover drew me in (one that is perfectly aligned to the story, in so many ways). Perhaps it was the hint of history. Perhaps the title. But I literally rushed to open the book's cover - hoping to tumble in . . . and tumble I did.

Opening with a rather unnerving scene of a child being hunted down in a house, the gently eerie tone of this book is quickly washed over with the bright sunlight of wealth and social standing. This sunlit wash continues throughout the book, providing a finely-placed contrast for the dark and dismal horrors of World War II England.

Cecily Lockwood, aged recently twelve, is one of my favourite central characters in a very long time. Utterly flawed and irritating, Hartnett masterfully creates her protagonist with the merest brush strokes - oftentimes as subtle as a look or a flinch of a muttered word, but always packing a powerful punch.

Older brother Jeremy is quite the upper class teen, poised on the brink of adulthood and utterly dismayed at the prospect of joining his socialite mother and younger sister as they flee to the country manor of their father's brother, away from the bombs of London. Joining them in this mass exodus, of course, are many thousands of children - most sent without parents - to foster homes in the country.

Alighting from the train and watching the fostered children shuffle into the local town hall like a pack of puppies off to the pound, Cecily begs her mother to take a child home to Uncle Peregrine's manor. Momentarily swayed, Mrs Lockwood allows her daughter to choose a young lass - May - whose father was killed in the war, and whose mother is forced to stay behind in London to earn money sewing parachutes.

The dynamics that develop between the controlling Cecily and the clever, unafraid May are deliciously penned in The Children of the King. Similarly, the relationship between the gracious but dark Peregrine and his extended family, and Mrs Lockwood and her son, are a delight to delve into - relationships that form the backbone of the story, along with Peregrine's sordid tale that is narrated to the children in pockets throughout the book.

This tale - told when the girls discover the ruins of the magnificent Snow Castle - about a Queen, a Duke and two young princes - is indeed based on real life history (Richard III). I simply adored this historical parallel, woven so seamlessly into the story and conjectured upon by both the author and the very characters she creates.

Beyond the mastery of her characters and storytelling, what I truly adored about this book were the evocative sentences. Hartnett certainly has the purest talent for weaving together the most startling word combinations that drip like literary honey. Although I reveled in every stand-alone droplet - these droplets oftentimes became just that - stand-alone. Like that barbed-wire cinema cough that breaks your movie reverie and plonks you back in the real world, for me, Hartnett's stunningly-crafted sentences frequently tripped up the storyline flow - not in the least bit because they weren't enjoyable, but because they are like black fretwork against white-washed walls - gorgeous but perhaps the tiniest bit inchoate.

Nonetheless, such a flaw - and not even a flaw - was miniscule in the grand scheme of this cleverly-constructed, beautifully-written and edited, multi-layered novel for adults, young adults, and sophisticated readers as young as ten.

One of my favourite reads this year.

Title: The Children of the King
Author: Sonya Hartnett
Publisher: Penguin, $24.95 RRP
Publication Date: 21 March 2012
Format: Hard cover, cloth bound
ISBN: 9780670076130
For ages: 10 - 14
Type: Junior Fiction, Historical Fiction