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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Children of the King, written by Sonya Hartnett. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $17.00 ages 10 and up

"Her host at Heron Hall was, in appearance, like a wily criminal from an adventure tale. He was tall and lean, and his face was shadowy, and he wore his dark hair long, like a mane, which May had never seen a real-life man do. His eyes, too, were very black, as if only night-time sights were invited into them. There was something mysterious about him..."

Oh, I could go on and on, sharing paragraphs and pages of perfect prose. Sonya Hartnett is an exemplary storyteller. Here, she continues her impeccable writing about the effects of war on children and families.

We begin in World War II London, in the days before the Blitz. The Lockwood family, without their father, is sent to the countryside to live at Heron Hall with Uncle Peregrine. Cecily, Jeremy and their mother are not happy with the decision made for them. At the train station there are other refugee children, alone and wondering who might provide care for them. Cecily convinces her family that they should help. She chooses May. Cecily likes the idea that she will take charge of the younger girl. May has other ideas. She is independent, headstrong, and does not easily accept being told what to do.

It is May who discovers the Snow Castle while wandering the surrounding countryside, and the two young boys who hide within its ruins. The boys are an interesting pair:

"From behind the wall, unhesitating, stepped a younger child. If the boys were indeed brothers, the first must have taken after one parent, the second after the other, for they did not look much alike. One seemed a collector of stamps, the other a player of rough games. The younger's face was not wary but cheerful, his frame not gangly but robust. Both of them, however, had pretty, dove-grey eyes and both of them wore their mousy curls long, all the way down to the collar. It took Cecily a moment to remember who else kept their hair like that, in a lion's mane, and realised it was her uncle Peregrine. And Cecily, who knew a bit about clothes, saw that those the brothers were wearing - linen shirts, velvet jackets, leather boots, calf-length cloaks - were well-made and costly, and something else as well, something she couldn't immediately define."

Now, we are set to hear the story within a story...Peregrine is willing to share his tale of Richard III and his nephews, and connect it to the Snow Castle that holds such intrigue for the children. As he shares pieces of it on successive evenings, the two stories merge into a truly mesmerizing tale of historical fiction that will have readers (and listeners) glued to their seats and making many connections. As we are firmly rooted in the story that compares the uncertainty and terror of the German attacks on London to the peaceful tranquility of the Lockwood estate, we also gain knowledge of a harrowing time in Britain's long history, when power also reared its ugly head:

"We don't know every single detail of what the King said and did; but we do know that, in the quest for power, truth is always the first thing left behind. Most people doubted the King had promised to marry another, but the Duke chopped the heads off a few people who said so aloud, and after that nobody argued. The King was dead, crazy Clarence was dead, the princes supposedly weren't royal, and the Duke was the only person left standing to claim the crown. He made a show of refusing it; his friends begged him to reconsider; he reconsidered and agreed. On a tide of lies and disloyalty, the Duke had become King."

Two stories told seamlessly, in the hands of an incredibly accomplished teller of tales. Complex and compelling, this is truly historical fiction at its best.

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