Children of the Lamp: the Akhnaten adventure, by PB Kerr

An arch, patronising, xenophobic yarn
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The Independent Culture

If Cole Porter were composing "Let's Do It" today, he could change the theme from sex to writing a children's book. So many smart operators from Madonna to Ricky Gervais seem to be at it, with established adult writers also not far behind. The latest is Philip Kerr, whose first children's novel has received a massive advance and plenty of pre-publication publicity.

If Cole Porter were composing "Let's Do It" today, he could change the theme from sex to writing a children's book. So many smart operators from Madonna to Ricky Gervais seem to be at it, with established adult writers also not far behind. The latest is Philip Kerr, whose first children's novel has received a massive advance and plenty of pre-publication publicity.

Set in contemporary Egypt, it involves two perky 12-year-old American twins with newly developed magical powers. They go to stay with an uncle who, in secret, is also a leading djinn. Against them is the evil Akhenaten, a rival djinn with plans to change the existing balance between good and evil in the world in favour of total chaos.

Kerr's previous novels have been high-paced, intelligent thrillers, but writing for children has brought out an arch quality not seen before in his work. Characters become stereotypes, with particularly unfortunate results when it comes to Mrs Coeur de Lapin, wife of the French ambassador to Egypt. Described as gushing, supercilious, unhygienic and bibulous, this character's defects are repeatedly attributed to the fact that she is French. Such humour may go down well in America, where Kerr sells many novels. But the time when British children's books could still get away with such crude xenophobia is surely past.

His descriptions of modern Egyptians can be equally offensive. Nicknaming a boy character "Baksheesh" is bad enough. Describing Cairo as a place where, despite the poverty, everyone still manages "to walk around with a smile on their faces" is simply obtuse at a time when a better understanding of the Arabic world is more important than ever. Kerr writes well and vividly about Egyptian ancient history, so it is odd that this enthusiasm for those who lived in the past shares space with such patronising views about people in the present.

The problem could be that, because Kerr is writing in a genre he is unfamiliar with, he has come to feel he must always try to be funny. But while his adult novels are sharply witty, here he too often goes in for pedantic drollery at the expense of subjects unworthy of satire - such as the various problems facing a character who also happens to be one-armed.

Fewer unsuccessful jokes, and a greater concentration on moving a leisurely narrative into a higher gear, might have made this novel read better. As it is, those with a taste for really effective djinns must either return to The Arabian Nights or get their hands on the first two volumes of Jonathan Stroud's excellent Bartimaeus trilogy.

The reviewer co-wrote the 'Rough Guide to Books for Teenagers'

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