Oath Breaker, the fifth and penultimate book of Michelle Paver's Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, opens with a roll-call of familiar characters. On the choppy waters of Bay of Seals, Torak, the 15-year-old clanless hero who can "spirit-walk" into the imagination of different species, is racing kayaks with his Seal Clan blood-brother Bale to the Crag to keep watch over the hiding place of the magical fire-opal. On the shore, red-haired Renn of the Raven Clan, his guide and helpmeet through the first four books, is teaching the Seal children archery, watched by her foster-father Fin-Kedinn.
Within nine pages, everything goes wrong. Bale tell Torak he wants Renn for himself. Furious, Torak leaves – and the next morning finds Bale dead, and the fire-opal stolen by the strongest of all his opponents: the Oak Mage.
So begins another triumph for Paver, a former London lawyer who has meticulously researched natural and ancient history to create this enthralling saga of the clansmen who hunted the forests of northern Europe 6,000 years ago. It outclasses Call of the Wild and The Jungle Book in the pace of its plot, its sympathetically imagined characters, and its details of doings.
Paver's writing is richly sensual. Renn makes a stew of "chickweed, bittercress and bramble shotts, with meaty spring mushrooms, and woodpigeon eggs and snails baked on the embers". The Red Deer clan give her clothes: "leggings and jerkin of roe-deer buckskin lined with hare fur, neat elkhide boots, and a supple, hooded cape which Renn mistook for wovenbark, but was told was nettle-stem". The books look good, with fine etched illustrations by Geoff Taylor and endpaper maps.
New among the panorama of characters are the awesome trees of the Dark Forest. When Torak spirit-walks into their thoughts, "his voice was the groaning of bark and the roaring of branches... Deep in the earth, his roots knew the burrowing moles and the soft, blind worms, and all was good, for he was tree, and he rejoiced in the wildness of the night".
Children are Paver's official audience, but her books are enjoyed by adults. If you don't have time to read, consider approaching the series on audiobooks. It is a tribute to Paver that Sir Ian McKellen has recorded every word. He is sensitive to the characters' nuances and particularly good as Wolf, Torak's animal pack-brother. Constantly mystified by the doings of "Tall Tailless", he time and again saves the day.