Move over Harry Potter, these girls can fight too
A new wave of feisty females is stirring up children’s fiction, finds Vanessa Curtis
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