The once-popular Victorian writer RM Ballantyne regularly channelled real-life adventures for his stories. His natural successor is Michelle Paver, whose children's books have sold over two million copies. A misleadingly demure former City lawyer, for research purposes she has swum with killer whales, gone seal hunting in Greenland and followed reindeer in Finland. For this Mediterranean Bronze Age novel, she has taken it comparatively easy, only crawling through claustrophobic copper mines and exploring a volcano.
The Burning Shadow is the second volume of Gods and Warriors, a five-part series mixing magic with ritual in the adventures of goatherd-turned-hero Hylas and his chief ally Pirra, the rebellious daughter of an Egyptian priestess. There's also an orphaned lion cub, whose loyalty comes in helpful on several occasions.
Up against them are the Crows, an evil dynasty that uses slaves to mine copper in awfulconditions. Following a prophecy, Hylas beats the odds to survive but has plenty of trouble facing him in the books to come. Some recapitulation is provided for readers who haven't read the first book, and the need for this could prove burdensome as the quintet progresses.
But Paver is an artful writer, and this novel more than stands on its own. While other contemporary children's authors imagine a future invariably described in nightmarish terms, Paver looks backwards more positively. Her admirably upright characters always do the right thing – helped by massive coincidences and a succession of last-minute escapes.
They address each other in clear, grammatical English, and set about a series of hard tasks without self-pity. Their world is made real by the sheer physicality of Paver's writing, packed with unfamiliar details taken from her own experience. While the bulk of this story is fantasy, it is based on the archeology of the Greek Bronze Age and the belief systems current at the time. Hats off to yet another rollicking adventure story with some sound educational side effects to boot. What's not to like?
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