Those who live in the land of Raddith fear they are cursed. “A curse can span any distance, penetrate any fortress, pass through any armor. He could find you wherever you hide, and no bodyguard could defend you from it. Those who curse others are aided by the Little Brothers, spider-like creatures living in the strange swamps known as the Wilds, who “seek out those consumed by rage or hatred” and see “the egg cursed” as a gift to those who are otherwise helpless.
Throw two teenagers into the mix — Kellen, a boy with a knack for unraveling curses, and Nettle, a girl recovering from several years as a heron — and you’ve got the oddly wonderful latest book from award-winning Frances Hardinge. Costa-Award . Detangler (Macmillan, £14.99) shines with eerie magic, taking its protagonists on a long and complicated journey that allows us to see some of the horrors that result from the curse. The girls are transformed into harps whose music speaks of their torment; the men are doomed to squirm endlessly on the end of a fish hook as bait.
This inventive and immersive fantasy entertains and intrigues while inviting us to consider pain and punishment. Are those with the potential to curse inherently dangerous, or are they justified in striking down their persecutors? Should they be placed in a hospital to keep the rest of society safe, or is this a cure – “We lock them up for years in windowless rooms with chains and iron helmets! ” — what keeps them angry enough to curse again and again? There’s nothing as easy as a moral to this story, however; the dangers and threats of the world resist easy solutions. Hardinge’s work is always exquisite; this latest volume is no exception.
Poet Nikita Gill offers advice and hope to young readers of These are the words (Macmillan, £7.99), a seasonal collection covering topics Gill has explored in his work for adults – misogyny, racism, protest, love, family. “I want us to love each other like we love art,” she notes, all too aware of the things that can corrode our souls.
Gill’s poetry is accessible yet haunting; there’s a tenderness that avoids getting too twee because it comes with acknowledgment of all the ugliness and pain in the world. Inviting someone to remember that he “is the moon” rather than obsessing over “a boy like that” can easily seem naïve, but she also notes, following a trauma, “maybe what they made you won’t leave. But the cliffs are still beautiful even after all they’ve been through at the hands of the wind and the ocean, and so are you. So are you.” It’s a gem.
Debut writer Sophie Jo, who has worked on campaigns about healthy teen relationships, also has a message to get across. In The nicest girl (UCLan Publishing, £7.99) we meet Anna, the girl who “always tries to do better” for her friends and anyone who asks. She’s the poster child for a lack of boundaries, and she knows it; in the first fifty pages, she concocted a plan – he even has his own specific notebook – to defend himself.
This doesn’t quite work, because (to use the pop psychology adage) those who take advantage of someone not having clear boundaries will punish them for setting them. Anna’s best friend, Marla, is furious when text messages aren’t answered immediately, and the boy at school she’s trying to be friendly with isn’t impressed when she doesn’t want more from him. Being honest and saying no to people is easier than it looks, and while it works out fine in the end, it’s realistic and difficult. Jo beautifully captures the little dramas of everyday teenage life.
Acclaimed poet Kwame Alexander sees his novel in verse Reserve (Andersen Press, £9.99) appears as a graphic novel, illustrated by Dawud Anyabwile. Nick is almost 13 and hates reading, much to the disappointment of his college parents. What he loves above all else is football and the way he feels on the pitch – here the images work particularly well to capture the energy – but collapsing with an attack of appendicitis means that he will not go to the championships.
Frustrated and isolated, especially since there are other strains in the family, the last thing he wants to do is turn to books – but that’s where he ultimately finds solace. It’s not quite a narrative to learn that adults were right all the time, though. When his dad tells him, “Books are like amusement parks,” Nick replies, “Yeah, well, maybe they’d be fun if I had to pick the rides sometimes.”
This is a book about letting children choose reading for fun, rather than homework, and will serve as that for many. It’s a little too sharp at times — there’s a librarian rapping, for example — but it’s mostly charming enough to get away with.
Jamila Gavin’s latest novel never forget you (Farshore, £8.99) depicts four friends during World War II. First meeting in an English boarding school in the late 1930s, their relationship to the troubles in Europe varied; one has parents who evolve in the then fashionable fascist circles, while another fails to reconcile the pacifism of her father with the desire to do good in the world. Each continues to have an impact during the war, but not all survive. It is a captivating story.
Ruta Sepetys explores more recent history in her latest novel, I have to betray you (Hodder, £7.99). Romania under communism is a place where “we did what we were told. We were told a lot of things. Cristian, 17, knows that “the good brothers and sisters of communism followed the rules”; he’s also aware that most people end up breaking the rules anyway. “There were so many to break. And so many to report that you had broken them.
A small breach of these rules leads to him being blackmailed into becoming an informant, and although he initially naively believes he can “outsmart” the agent he is dealing with, it becomes clear just how bad things are desperate and dark when everyone is under such heavy scrutiny and trusting anyone – even your own family members – carries a risk.
It’s a sweltering read at times, though the 1989 setting offers some hope. Across Europe, the Iron Curtain is falling and Cristian eagerly listens to the illegal radio station as Romania’s time seems to be approaching. What he doesn’t know yet – and what many readers may not know until they encounter the details here – is that his own country’s escape from dictatorship won’t be like to peaceful revolutions elsewhere.
Sepetys is a master at weaving historical events with compelling characters that crawl under your skin. So many evils in the world come down to a lack of recognition of the humanity of the other; books like hers invite and foster fierce empathy and awareness. And like the best books that do that, they achieve their goal not by forcing a message down our throats, but by mesmerizing us with their extraordinary narrative power.