Hello! I’m a children’s book critic, writing mainly for the Guardian Online and the Metro – and I’m super-grateful to MG Strikes Back for allowing me to pop up on Sundays, to write about one book I’ve been particularly impressed by every week. I’m kicking off with the first in a new series called The Keepers: The Box and the Dragonfly by Ted Sanders, published by Hot Key Books in the UK (although it’s an American title.)
I dearly love middle-grade quest fantasies, but I think the best ones refuse pure escapism, forcing their readers to face up to problems at home rather than skipping off through a portal to A.N.Otherworld and allowing the priorities of their new context to expunge those of the old. The quest stories I grew up with – Alan Garner’s bleak, terrifying Elidor, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising Sequence – and still remember most vividly now, interweave the imperatives of an unexpected new world of magic and fear with the workaday world’s still-present problems. To me, Ted Sanders’ The Box and the Dragonfly does this superlatively well, bringing my well-loved childhood stories bang up to date while preserving the timeless feeling of the magical-quest premise.
Horace F. Andrews is highly intelligent, rather reclusive, a bit on the large side, and very much given to scientific enquiry, seeing the world in a methodical, balanced way. (I found him a particularly appealing protagonist because of this. Horace is a not hapless nerd – he enjoys using his brains, rather than feeling ashamed of them.)
When Horace is drawn into the mysterious House of Answers, he bonds with an extraordinary object called the Box of Promises – and becomes a Tan’ji, a Keeper and user of one of the magical artefacts that share the same name. But, by doing so, Horace runs afoul of a terrifying creature known as the Thin Man, who seeks to control the Tan’ji, and who will now pursue him with the relentlessness of a nightmare. When Horace meets Chloe, also a Keeper of a Tan’ji (the dragonfly of the title) and another of the Thin Man’s targets, they must learn rapidly about their powers, their limitations, and what they will do to save their Tan’ji – and each other.
This is a substantial, fat book, but fast-paced; full of challenge and compelling, cracking story. Sanders relishes words, and his prose is original and satisfying; the bins and shelves of objects in the House of Answers bear lists like ‘LOST BITS, MOSTLY INCOMPLETE, FOR THE WEARY, FOR THE WEE, TRUCULENT’. There’s plenty of delicious, belly-laugh, surreal humour throughout, too; a common, somewhat portentous phrase among Keepers, ‘Fear is the stone we push. May yours be light’ is satirised by Horace and Chloe (‘Fear is the pillow. May yours be fluffy’, ‘Fear is the eggplant. May yours be purple’) in a way that made me snort. The characters are superbly drawn – no stock heroes or cardboard cut-outs here – and the nuanced treatment of feelings and relationships give the book serious heft. Parents, and the protagonists’ relationship with them, for instance, are very much present – Chloe’s dad, an alcoholic who frequently lets his childrendown, incurs the Thin Man’s attention himself at one point, since his vulnerability makes him a potential gateway to his daughter. The Thin Man himself is an outstandingly nightmarish creation, tapping effortlessly into the reader’s lizard-brain fears and lingering darkly in their peripheral vision.
Notwithstanding the swift pace of the story and the subtlety, detail and intrigue of Sanders’ imagined world, the focus of The Box and the Keeper is the specific heroism of friendship, loyalty, and love – and it’s that, to me, which makes it so special. I hope it will be read and read and read – and I’m looking forward excitedly to the next in the series.