During December I’ll be recommending two feel-good Fantasy novels for children, one fairly old and one fairly new. I’ll start with the modern one – “Flood and Fang” (2009) by Marcus Sedgwick. On the cover this is called Goth Froth (is that a genre?) but I’m going to classify it as a Gothic Comedy. “Flood and Fang” is Book I of The Raven Mysteries and there are five volumes in the series so far. You can get “Flood and Fang” as an ebook but because the witty illustrations by Pete Williamson are such an important part of the story print copies work better. There is though a spiffing website to go with the series – www.ravenmysteries.co.uk
“Flood and Fang” is narrated by a raven called Edgar and set in Castle Otherhand – “home to all sorts of oddballs, lunatics and fruitcakes”. The castle is owned by Lord Valevine Otherhand and his wife Lady Euphemia, known as Minty. Valevine is an unsuccessful inventor who spends most of his time in his laboratory in the East Tower, reluctantly assisted by Flinch the butler. Minty used to be a witch who specialized in curses but now she’s obsessed with baking the perfect spongecake. The Otherhands have four children – twin toddlers, Fizz and Buzz, wimpy son Cudweed, and teenage daughter Solstice who writes gloomy poems with titles such as “Why aren’t I dead?” The wise old raven thinks that, “The Otherhands are all so very stupid, even for people,” but he does have a soft-spot for raven-haired Solstice.
The Otherhands are looked after by many servants; so many that when housemaids start disappearing it takes a while for anyone to notice. Edgar has already been alarmed by a glimpse of the huge slimy tail of a “hideous, horrible, hateful thing” in the castle gardens and has spotted what looks like a new tunnel in the rock the castle is built on. Unfortunately as none of the Otherhands speak Raven they pay no attention to his warnings. When Edgar discovers that the castle cellars have mysteriously flooded and that the water is still rising, he has to devise a cunning plan, involving pork crackling and Cudweed’s malicious pet monkey, to get the family to notice. Even then, Solstice is the only one who really helps Edgar to investigate the horrid fate of the missing maids. As the waters keep on rising, the castle itself seems to have turned against the Otherhands putting everyone in terrible danger. Can Edgar work out what is going on before it is too late?
Marcus Sedgwick’s compelling Young Adult Fantasy novels, such as “The Book of Dead Days” or “The White Crow”, are usually described as dark, chilling or bleak – never as funny and cheerful. Sedgwick is the last author I expected to make me smile and laugh a lot, but writing for younger readers obviously brings out a different side of him. The Raven Mysteries are rather like Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast Trilogy” played for laughs. As in Peake’s books, the castle itself almost counts as the main character. In “Flood and Fang” each decorative chapter heading contains interesting facts about the history of Castle Otherhand. There is, for example, information about the exact number of arrows fired during 32 sieges of the castle, about the legend of its Lost Jewels, and about the castle’s most terrifying inhabitant – “fearsome, foul and flatulent” Nanny Lumber. During the story, Edgar describes various parts of the architectural nightmare that is Castle Otherhand including the Great Hall, the Lost South Wing and the sinister cellars. He suspects that the castle “has its own views on things” and sometimes acts in its own defence. In “Flood and Fang” Castle Otherhand has a plan for defeating an invader. It just happens to be a stupid one…
Like the Tower of London, Castle Otherhand has Raven guardians, except that Edgar is the only one left and he is old and tired. Ravens have a strong presence in Myth and Fantasy. They can be birds of ill-omen and bringers of war, symbols of collective wisdom, Trickster gods or divine messengers. I can think of several notable ravens in children’s literature such as melancholy Marshall in “The Stone Cage” by Nicholas Stuart Gray or the anarchical Mortimer in Joan Aiken’s “Arabel and Mortimer” stories. Excitable Edgar is a welcome addition to the list of leading ravens and his peppery narration is a joy to read. He can quoth rather more than “Nevermore” but words such as rock and rack aren’t often useful in general conversation and most humans can’t interpret raven noises such RURK! “which is not as rude as FUTHORK but still a bit”. Fortunately, Edgar explains to us what he’s thinking and saying, which allows young readers to feel superior to the ignorant adults in the story – always an enjoyable experience.
Much of the humour in this book arises from the daft behaviour of the Otherhand family. Lord Valevine is wasting time and resources trying to prove that frogs cause thunder and lightning – his gruesome experiments will probably horrify older readers and delight younger ones. Lady Minty is so keen to find the right cake tin that she fails to notice the perils her adventurous twins are exposed to amongst the sharp knives and roasting pits of the castle kitchens. Cudweed eats too much and is “…amazingly, award-winningly scared, all the time,” while Solstice loves excitement and is prone to dash into danger. Compared to the others though, Goth Princess Solstice is the smart one.
The plot of “Flood and Fang” is wonderfuly wild and absurd but clever characterization make you think of the Otherhands as a real family, not so far removed from the sort of eccentric neighbours or relatives everyone has some experience of. A monstrous threat brings this family together in a very literal way but they are still slow to grasp Edgar’s brilliant plan to save them. At one point, exasperated Edgar considers abandoning the castle but part of him still cares about the people who live in it in spite of their foolishness. Choose to help people whether they deserve it or not seems like a good motto for the Christmas season. Until next time…