Melanie McDonagh Melanie McDonagh

Recent children’s books | 19 May 2016

Witchcraft, murder and some unusually grotesque monsters are on offer — from Martin Stewart, Kenneth Oppel, Francesca Simon, Robin Stevens and others

Martin Stewart’s Riverkeep (Penguin, £7.99) has a list of books and writers on the cover: Moby-Dick, The Wizard of Oz, Ursula Le Guin, Charles Dickens and, less ambitiously, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman and Skellig. And, right in the middle, Riverkeep. Pff, you think: they wish!

But you know what? Having read the book, there are elements of all these authors in it: Moby-Dick for the quest for a great sea monster; The Wizard of Oz for a homunculus who retains his self, even when he loses his stuffing; Ursula Le Guin for the creation of a coherent other world where magic is part and parcel of things; and perhaps Dickens for a dank, watery atmosphere.

Riverkeep is what the hero’s father does; he fishes corpses from the river for decent burial and expects his 15-year-old son to do the same. But that’s before a peculiar creature jumps into him and starts to devour him from inside. The only remedy is the gland of an enormous sea monster which has appeared down the coast. And so begins a voyage in which our teenage hero accumulates fellow travellers, from the dirty-minded homunculus to a woman nursing a baby made out of mandrake root, plus a waif, along with his possessed father, eating fish heads.

I know: you’re thinking weird, magic realism… get me out of here. But I can only say that it’s a cracking, startlingly original story (and given the copycat character of so much children’s fiction, that’s quite something). It would be an extraordinary book by any author — but it is Martin Stewart’s first.

Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest (David Fickling Books, £10.99) really is peculiar. It’s about a boy, his sick baby brother and a conspiracy by a sinister queen wasp to create a changeling, a perfect version of the flawed infant.

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