Friday, 16 November 2012

The Feral Child, by Che Golden

The combination of the cover and the title of this new children’s book immediately grabbed my attention: “A stolen child. An ancient evil. The quest of a lifetime,” reads the tag line. What more does a girl need?

Faeries, elves, and especially the idea of the changeling - whereby a human child is stolen away by the faeries and replaced with one of their own - have long since fascinated me, and the recent success of Amanda Hocking’s ‘Switched’ series suggests I’m not the only one. In The Feral Child we have a version for younger readers that incorporates all the standard adventure elements of a good children’s book: unhappy orphan embarks on risk-taking quest to rescue the one friend she has, successfully thwarting various challenges along the way, and ultimately finding her way, or her place, in the world*. And then, thrown in for good measure, there is also the faerie land, dryads, an evil queen, an ice castle, and some turncoat talking wolves. Its a bit like a cross between Tolkien’s Middle Earth and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. It also fills a similar niche to Cathryn Constable’s The Wolf Princess, which I recently reviewed on this same blog.

Meet Maddy. She lives with her grandparents in the Irish town of Blarney. Her grandfather spends much of his time telling her ‘absurd’ faerie tales about Tir na n'Og, the Land of Eternal Youth, where the faeries live; her grandmother just wants her to be happy, but her cousin is a bully, and so, apparently, is her aunt. But then she meets a strange boy, John, who tries to kidnap her; when she escapes, he follows, taunting her through her window at night, and ultimately stealing away Stephen, the little boy who lives next door. But John is not just any boy: he is Sean Rua, a faerie famous for luring mortal children into the Faerie realm, and Maddy, like her Grandad, has the Sight, meaning she can see him for what he really he is. When her Grandad refuses to go in search of the lost Stephen, Maddy decides the only way is to enter the Faerie realm and rescue him herself.

Che Golden, who hails from the very same town as Maddy, has presumably constructed her book around the stories and myths of Tir na nOg and its occupants that she herself was told as a child, myths that have been passed through time, written and published around the world. The idea that many of these tales originate around the town of Blarney brings to mind the saying, ‘a load of old Blarney,’ used to refer to ‘rubbish’ or lies, perhaps because of the faerie tales and the modern assumption that they’re untrue? But I can’t help wonder whether there is an element of truth in them somewhere - as there surely are in most mythologies - and so applaud Golden for trying to bring these stories a little more to life.

The Feral Child starts off exceedingly well. The beginning is incredibly creepy, to the point where I - thirty two years old - actually considered sleeping with the light on. Overall, its a good little book, with much that children (particularly girls) of this age (8-12) will enjoy, and be gripped by. I, however, didn’t feel it really lived up to its potential, or its auspiscous beginning, predominantly because parts of the background story were quite confused and difficult to follow, and because of what I felt was some slightly dodgy characterisation.

For instance, when Maddy first enters Faerie, she learns that the ruling race are the Tuatha de Dannan, spiteful and power-hungry faeries, immersed in some sort of civil war to determine who rules overall. Yet, a short while later we discover that the land is currently under the grip of the Winter Queen who is in fact not Tuatha de Dannan but an Elf named Liadan. Liadan, being an Elf, is not strong enough to bear the weight of the Winter crown; it has changed her, creating an ugly being both inside and out. To me, this made her a sympathetic character, somebody who is burdened and in need of help, and so I thought that - ultimately - Maddy’s role would be to save her from herself, and thus also save the kingdom. This idea was cemented by the Fionn, a dryad who, at the risk of her own life, offers to help Maddy in her quest because she wants the grip of the Winter Queen to be lessened, and believes Maddy is the one destined to do so. This, though, is not the ending that Golden chooses. Not only was this disappointing and not entirely satisfactory, but so was the fact that I didn’t really understand the ending Golden did choose.

In addition to this, not only are Maddy’s companions rather two-dimensional, Maddy herself is at times questionable. For starters, she often uses turns of phrase that I felt were too adult for her. Then there is the part where half way through her journey she is made out to be suicidal. This is not explicitly written, but it is implied. In terms of characterisation, though I understand that she was unhappy and troubled, I thought suicidal was a bit of a leap. And then there is Fionn. After helping Maddy to a certain destination, Fionn tries to leave, explaining that she needs to return home, but Maddy and her friends talk her around, convincing her to stay. This is clearly done for their own selfish reasons which fail to take into account Fionn’s situation. Ultimately, this results in Fionn being caught by Liadan’s second in command, and told to go home and await her punishment, which is implied as likely to be rather brutal. And this is the last we hear of her. Not only does Maddy never mention Fionn again, but she shows little sign of remorse in being responsible for this innocent’s sufferings, even after having talked her into helping them further. Really, shouldn’t Maddy have done more to save Fionn?

And the title? Well, at the end its revealed that the feral child is Maddy herself, though I’m not really sure why. I think it’s a poor choice of title compared to the engaging image on the cover (a faerie), and the fact that much of the story is centred around faerie mythology - something that captures the adventure and the sights and sounds of Tir na nOg would be more catching and tie in stronger with the storyline.

Despite of all these reservations, it should be remembered that I am an adult and that most children who read The Feral Child are not going to be entering the experience with a critical mind. They will enjoy the idea and the adventure, the ice queen and the drama - that is, as long as any parents out there don’t mind their child reading the morally out-of-tune episode with Fionn. Ultimately, while there is an essence of Narnia in the book’s construction, it lacks the rounded outcome.

* Actually, thinking about it from a writer’s perspective, Che Golden has surely read Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, which is a standard storywriting text, outlining all the key elements that classic myths and tales tend to follow.

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