Move over Harry Pot­ter, th­ese girls can fight too

A new wave of feisty fe­males is stir­ring up chil­dren’s fiction, finds Vanessa Cur­tis

The Herald - Arts - - Books - CHIL­DREN’S ROUND-UP

Feisty hero­ines abound in this month’s se­lec­tion of new fiction for chil­dren. It seems as if a de­ter­mined team of girl d e t e c t iv e s , s e c re t a ge n t s , war­riors and sor­cer­esses is try­ing to ri­val or even outdo the Alex Rid­ers, Harry Pot­ters and Hor­rid Hen­rys who’ve held court for so long.

Se­ries fiction is all the rage, and one of the most daz­zling and pro­lific new tal­ents around at the mo­ment has to be Ju­lia Golding, fresh from win­ning both the Nes­tle and Water­stone’s Chil­dren’s Book Prizes for her first se­ries fea­tur­ing Cat Royal and her ad­ven­tures in the the­atre­land of Ge­or­gian Lon­don. Golding’s other re­cent works for chil­dren in­clude the Com­pan­ions Quar­tet, based around the So­ci­ety for the Pro­tec­tion of Myth­i­cal Crea­tures, and the first in a set of pi­rate books, The Ship Be­tween the Worlds.

Some­how the au­thor has also found time to in­vent Dar­cie Lock, the strong­minded teenage agent from yet an­other forth­com­ing se­ries of books, first of which is Ring­mas­ter (Eg­mont, £6.99, age 12+). Dar­cie has been liv­ing a pam­pered, shel­tered and in­no­cent life out in Nairobi with her fa­ther, whom she be­lieves is do­ing some “dead-end job in the con­sular sec­tion of the Bri­tish High Com­mis­sion”.

Mean­while her mother flies all the way to New York once a month just to get her nails done (oddly, this never seems any­thing other than fea­si­ble to a daugh­ter who is por­trayed by the au­thor as hav­ing above-av­er­age intelligence).

Dar­cie’s or­dered life of school, ser­vants and so­cial­is­ing is shat­tered when ar­riv­ing home from school one day, a “black car with diplo­matic plates turned up at the gate and switched off its lights”. Two of­fi­cials in dark suits en­ter the house and re­veal that ev­ery­thing she has be­lieved about her par­ents is a sham. Her fa­ther, far from hav­ing some dull ad­min­is­tra­tive job, is a spy, work­ing for the Se­cret In­tel­li­gent Ser­vices. Her mother works for the CIA, go­ing to Wash­ing­ton once a month to be de­briefed. A stunned Dar­cie finds her­self signed up as a ju­nior agent in a bid to go un­der­ground and find out what has hap­pened to her miss­ing fa­ther.

From here on in, the novel moves at a crack­ing pace through a world of smug­gling, es­pi­onage and de­cep­tion. Oc­ca­sion­ally Dar­cie’s di­a­logue slips away from that of a 14-year-old girl and takes on the know­ing tone of an adult, but on the whole Ring­mas­ter in­tro­duces a be­liev­able hero­ine who trades on her wit and de­ter­mi­na­tion to solve dan­ger­ous mys­ter­ies.

An­other girl you wouldn’t want to mess with in a dark al­ley­way is Beren­ge­ria, “daugh­ter of Thorkil, king of the Mark” and hero­ine of Vik­ing Girl (Ox­ford, £5.99, age 10+) from Pauline Chan­dler’s sec­ond his­tor­i­cal novel and fol­low-up to War­rior Girl. Again, th­ese nov­els have all the hall­marks of be­ing the start of a long-run­ning se­ries com­prised of tough fear­less girls who take no pris­on­ers and are more than ca­pa­ble of stand­ing up to the men who threaten their lives.

Beren­ge­ria is in ex­ile, out to avenge the death of her fa­ther and to try to make peace with the Sax­ons, who hate her peo­ple. Along the way she en­lists the help of a monk whose name, Al­bi­nus, matches his phys­i­cal de­scrip­tion of “a lint of fair hair, star­tlingly fair, al­most white”.

Beren­ge­ria kicks, fights and punches her en­e­mies like a man: “I gripped his wrists, ap­ply­ing all my strength to the hold. Thorkil taught me the move. It can weaken an op­po­nent’s sinews so that his hands trem­ble and hang limp as fine grass af­ter­wards for up to a day.” Beren­ge­ria’s epic quest for free­dom will de­light boys as well as girls.

Fi­nally, Vi­vian French’s comic novel for younger read­ers, The Robe of Skulls(Walker,£4.99, age8+), is set up above the fic­tional vil­lage of Frac­ture, where the evil sor­cer­ess Lady Lamorna, along with her un­help­ful head­less ser­vant Gub­ble, is de­ter­mined to in­dulge her crav­ing for a new dress, even if it in­volves kid­nap­ping, mur­der­ing small an­i­mals and cast­ing du­bi­ous black magic spells. But she reck­ons with­out a rather un­usual young hero­ine, Gra­cie Gil­ly­pot, a Cin­derella char­ac­ter first seen for­lornly stir­ring a pot of “wa­ter soup” and wish­ing she had some­thing to eat “she’d been hun­gry for days and weeks and months and years.”

En­ter a crazy bat who refers to her as “kiddo” and who whisks her off to meet some an­cient crones via an en­chanted for­est and to save the world from Lady Lamorna. With won­der­fully in­ven­tive place names such as Gore­breath, The Robe of Skulls of­fers fan­tas­tic es­capism for younger read­ers who like strong c h a r a c t e r i s at i o n a n d m o re th a n a lib­eral dol­lop of dead­pan hu­mour in their books.

Left, Pro­fes­sor Scal­lio and Mar­cus, two char­ac­ters in Vi­vian French’s comic novel, The Robe of Skulls, il­lus­trated by Ross Collins. Fac­ing panel, top to bot­tom, with their nov­els: Ju­lia Golding, Pauline Chan­dler and Vi­vian French

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