Witch reports on occult power

There's more than one sophisticated magician in town, as Nicholas Tucker discovers in his survey of new teenage fiction
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The Independent Culture

Diana Wynne Jones has produced over 30 fantasy novels whose intelligence, unpredictable plots and lively characterisations knock all rivals into a witch's cocked hat. Year of the Griffin (Gollancz, £16.99) continues in this vein, and older readers still hankering for the next Harry Potter should find plenty to interest them here. The locale is a Wizards' University so short of money that academic standards have been reduced to rote learning in big classes while teachers struggle with top-heavy administration and frenetic research demands. Any resemblance to the modern British university is of course quite accidental.

Diana Wynne Jones has produced over 30 fantasy novels whose intelligence, unpredictable plots and lively characterisations knock all rivals into a witch's cocked hat. Year of the Griffin (Gollancz, £16.99) continues in this vein, and older readers still hankering for the next Harry Potter should find plenty to interest them here. The locale is a Wizards' University so short of money that academic standards have been reduced to rote learning in big classes while teachers struggle with top-heavy administration and frenetic research demands. Any resemblance to the modern British university is of course quite accidental.

Some lively students decide to improve things, and the story ends on a high for everyone. Danger and darkness also exist, but without the windy rhetoric of the Dungeons and Dragons tradition at its most pretentious. Here instead is a fantasy written with constant good humour, while also making telling comments on the way we live now.

Celia Rees's Witch Child (Bloomsbury, £10.99) provides another excellent read. It concerns a 17th-century adolescent girl who actually possesses some of the supernatural powers she is accused of. But these are kept well in the background within a story where historical realism is the clear winner. Exiled to Salem, Massachusetts, Mary has to watch out while rumours come to a climax after a series of natural disasters. Written as if by Mary, in the form of a journal, this unflattering picture of Puritan life in the New World is compelling and convincing. Rees has become a major writer for teenage readers.

Jamila Gavin is another author producing top-quality work. Best known for her Surya trilogy, set in India, she has now turned to 18th-century London in Coram Boy (Mammoth, £5.99). This stunning novel is neither for the faint-hearted nor for anyone ever tempted to think nostalgically about the glories of Georgian England. It is about a ruthless dealer, who travels along the drovers' roads purporting to carry abandoned infants to London's new Coram Hospital for the Maintenance and Education of Exposed and Deserted Children.

In fact, he buries the babies alive or dead while allowing most older infants to starve to death. The presence of humanists like Charles Burney and George Handel - a great friend of the Coram Hospital - offers a thought-provoking counterpoint to the horrors of their lifetime. Throw in some dabbling in slavery as well, and this could seem a truly dark novel. That it is not is a tribute to the author's limpid and compassionate prose, and to the way she allows her main child characters a better fate than so many others could normally expect. The late Leon Garfield had his own genius for recreating the slums and stews during the so-called Age of Enlightenment; in this story, Gavin is worthy of the comparison.

Back to our own century, conditions could also improve for the teenagers in Robert Swindells's Dosh (Puffin, £4.99), a novel about a sinister protection racket that skims off 10 per cent of all money pupils earn outside school. The author has immense narrative flair, and this tense story is hard to put down. But he is also inconsistent and sometimes crude. Comparing an admittedly unpleasant adolescent girl who sticks out in her neighbourhood to "a turd in a punchbowl" is unnecessarily gross, coming as it does from the novelist himself rather than some foul-mouthed teenager.

The description of how a group of otherwise sensible adolescents manage to trap a paedophile gang by using 14-year-old twins as decoys is also as silly as any of the improbabilities found in the now-distant world of Enid Blyton.

Mary Hooper is another writer to watch and Holly (Bloomsbury, £4.99) is one of her best novels yet. The adolescent girl of the title starts receiving gifts from an anonymous donor. When he finally makes himself known, all domestic hell breaks loose as Holly's mother has to face up to a secret in her past. But nothing is over the top in this sensitive, engrossing tale. Holly's need to find out about her true identity will find an echo in all teenage readers, however secure. This is intelligent, informed writing, with an ear for contemporary dialogue and fashions.

David Almond's collection of short stories Counting Stars (Hodder, £10) is different from his previous novels. Linked through the same background and characters, the tales look back to a childhood growing up in the North East under the shadow of what is depicted as narrow, bigoted Roman Catholicism. Child characters go through all the normal stages of growing sexual interest, loss of innocence and moments of understanding, yet each discovery still comes over with the shock of the unexpected. Sparely written, with much of the narrative told in dialogue, this could well be Almond's best work yet.

Philippa Pearce is now an improbable 80 years old. The Rope and other stories (Puffin, £4.99) is a collection of short stories, some new and some re-published. Mostly set in the countryside, sometimes gently spooky, this late offering from such a famously reticent writer shows all her former powers and should on no account be missed.

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