Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

With daffodils and Easter eggs comes a seasonal shower of children's books designed to resurrect the fortunes of their imprints. (See our selection, on pages 32-3.) In recent years, young readers - and parents - could be forgiven for believing that this spring torrent is meant to entice them not merely to part with cash, but also to join a cult. Thanks in part to the starring role given books, libraries and learning by JK Rowling and Philip Pullman, publishers have sought out stories that place reading and its lore at the heart of the tale.

In an age of screens and pixels, these works invite digital kids to sign up with the antique but exciting Church of Print. Thus Cornelia Funke's Inkheart and Inkspell fantasies conjured up a spellbinding story-shaped world. Even on the often book-averse TV, Buffy the Vampire Slayer spent seven supremely cool series recruiting the next generation of scholars and bibliophiles via its tweedily hip master-librarian, Rupert Giles.

In Britain, the latest children's author to enter the seductive mirrored hall of books-about-books is Matthew Skelton, beneficiary of the obligatory "furious bidding war" for his debut, Endymion Spring (Puffin, £10.99). In Mainz in 1452 - on one side of a time-shifted story - Endymion the young "printer's devil" helps testy Johann Gutenberg to perfect moveable type and so create his world-shaking Bible. But Gutenberg's backer, the sinister merchant Fust (yes, devilry will dog this tale), has gone further and secured a magical dragon's skin - a sort of occult search-engine, 550 years early. This has the power to access a "last book" of universal knowledge that may contain "whole libraries within its pages". I suspect that Skelton (until now a book historian) has been listening to the same Google executives as I have.

Back in modern Oxford, our young hero Blake (it was Blake Morrison, remember, who wrote the novel The Justification of Johann Gutenberg) escapes from his unhappy academic mum and annoying kid sister by sleuthing in the library at St Jerome's, and befriending oddball bibliophiles gathered for a meeting. As an e-book champion lectures on "digital paper and electronic ink", Blake delves deeper into underground libraries, the fate of the "last book", and Endymion's life.

Pitched, a little uneasily, roughly halfway between Buffy and Borges, Skelton's yarn rattles along at a pace that still permits some intriguing nods to the demonic traditions of book-learning and data-gathering. (The cat in the enticing but treacherous college library is, of course, named Mephistopheles.) Yet Skelton somehow contrives to make the stinks and snows of medieval Mainz more pungent than present-day Oxford, which here attracts its fair share of cobwebby clichés.

Endymion Spring hitches some bold ideas to a headlong but simple dual narrative. More daring spirits might want to tackle this spring's other "crossover" blockbuster about the dark magic of reading, The City of Dreaming Books by Walter Moers (Harvill Secker, £18.99). John Brownjohn translates from the German with tireless zest as Moers unfolds his tale of the print-obsessed city of Bookholm, with 5,000 antiquarian bookshops, an army of ruthless "Bookhunters", and endless catacombs of murky tombs for precious tomes.

A bit like Terry Pratchett as rewritten by Thomas Mann, this epic jape will probably give most pleasure to hardcore adult fans of comic fantasy. Still, teenage readers who can never get enough of Discworld detail might relish its rather elephantine merriment. I should, however, be careful what I say, since one of Moers's truly encyclopaedic stock of literary gags involves fatal "toxicotomes" - books impregnated with poison and used to murder rival authors or "persistently hostile reviewers". I can think of bookish types who would slay to get their inky hands on those.

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