Attitude: Some Care Needed → Positive
In Brief: Fantasy adventure based around the statues of London. Persevering friendship, self-sacrifice and generosity. A religious character portrayed as untrustworthy. Slightly awkward mixture of straightforward physical battles and a mystical quest. Broken family backgrounds including implied violence between father and daughter. Occasional mild coarseness.
Published in: 2006
Age Range: Pre Teens+
- George Chapman unwillingly becomes involved in the battle between the statues of London. He is brought out of his initial fearful reluctance by the surly persistence of Edie and the down-to-earth cheerfulness and bluntness of the Gunner.
- Edie is a 12-year-old runaway, whose unusual relationship with the statues makes her both a asset and a liability in George's quest. Defensive but loyal, she bullies George into overcoming his doubts about the need for their journey. There's some suggestion that she was abused by her father and may have caused his death.
- The Gunner from the Memorial at Hyde Park Corner is a no-nonsense cavalry soldier, persevering and loyal even in the face of overwhelming opposition.
- The Walker is an Elizabethan, cursed to walk forever, accompanied by the raven Memory of Norse Legend. They are allies of the Taints.
With the help of the Gunner from the Royal Artillery War Memorial and Edie, a girl of his own age who has special part to play, George is drawn into the war between Spits — the human statues of London — and Taints — the gargoyles and monsters, until he finishes what he started when he inadvertently damaged a statue outside the Natural History Museum.
I can imagine the author saying to himself, “I've got a great idea: why not base a story around the statues of London? Plenty to choose from even if you just stick to a fairly narrow area.” And indeed this central conceit of the story is very appealing: there is a war between the Spits, statues of humans, and the Taints, statues of everything else, including gargoyles, dragons and minotaurs. 12-year-olds George and Edie become aware of this war, and are of course on the side of the Spits. They are shepherded by the sturdy Gunner, helped along by Dr Johnson and the rather sneaky Black Friar, and confused by the Sphinxes who are of mixed allegiance.
The balance the storyteller seems to try for — and nearly reaches — is between a well-grounded and at times gritty story and a fantasy world which exists beside our own. The basic idea works very well: setting the story in present-day London with statues anyone can go and find gives a real interest which you wouldn't find in an imaginary land. (I particularly liked the idea of the soldier-statues using pigeons to send messages). The story, though, is at its weakest when trying to rationalise its fantasy element. We hear various characters gives clues about what's happened to George, what part Edie has to play, and what they have to do. But none of it's very convincing, and the end in particular seems to lack logic, as though the author just thought “Oh well, I'm going for a sequel: I can explain everything in that.” Why can Edie see ghosts? In what way is George a “Maker”? What is the Stone Heart? Why is the Black Friar so mistrusted?
The guide and mentor is The Gunner from the Artillery War Memorial in Hyde Park. He's a very down-to-earth character, a man who worked with the horses which pulled the guns in the Great War, a foil to modern-day sensibilities, who laughs when George suggests he shouldn't be smoking, who uses his pistol ruthlessly to defend himself and George against attack. He helps the youngsters, sometimes forcing them to think for themselves, and sacrifices himself to save them. His rough manner is tempered by his friendship with the other statues, not only his “brothers” — other statues by his sculptor Jagger — but also the bookish Dr Johnson in the Fleet Street Church.
It is from the Gunner that we learn of statues and their makers. The statues are the children of their makers, taking their names in the same way that a human does. The Gunner gives a moving description of how Jagger, a sculptor-turned-soldier, made statues around London after the Great War which represented the way in which wives and children wanted to remember their loved ones fallen in battle. The issue of a creator God is skirted throughout but some discussion may be appropriate if this is an issue.
The main thread of the story plays itself out without any great difficulties; the children have to use their initiative to overcome obstacles, learn to trust each other and to discover where their quest is taking them. Neither child has a complete family: both fathers are dead, Edie's living in hostels for runaways and George's mother is an actress and often away. Neither child has any kind of belief that anyone can help them, until they experience the rough but undemanding friendship and help of the Gunner, the Dictionary and the other Spits. Their relationship with each other is frosty at first but thaws into a gentle friendship.
The character I'm left most uneasy about is the Black Friar, outside the pub of that name. The other statues mistrust him, but there's no apparent reason why this should be. Certainly he presents himself as a fairly free-living monk, more pub landlord than Religious, with only mockery for religious practice: “a fat monk and a merry innkeeper; ... I provide mirth and happiness ... and absolution for sins past, present, and even — for a fee — future.” His reputation for shiftiness seems to have no plot relevance and reinforces the long-held prejudice against hypocritical Religious characters.
More straightforward adversaries include the Grid Man, the Minotaur, and the Dragons guarding the city. There's enough moments of wincing violence to put off the really fainthearted, although these are also moments of heroic courage.
The dénouement is disappointing for turning from the down-to-earth if fantastical struggle between Spits and Taints to a hard-to-understand and semi-mystical struggle involving difficult choices for both children. Nonetheless, I find the book's starting point, main characters and chosen battleground so appealing as to overcome that small difficulty. And hopefully the sequel will reveal more.
- The statues around London
- Physical action as a valid means of self-defence
- Creation and subcreation
'What the Sphinx said. “Your remedy lies in the Stone Heart, and the Heart Stone shall be your relief — you must find the Stone hearts, and then sacrifice and make amends for that which is broken by putting on the Stone at the Heart of London that which is necessary for its repair”' she recited. 'Or did you forget?'
'Good. Because it'd be a bloody shame if you get to this stone and he's sacrificed himself to help you and you still haven't got a clue about what to do, wouldn't it?'
'Hold on,', he said quickly. 'If I'm such a pain, why did you come back?'
'Because he told me to look after you. Actually he said we had to look after each other, but yuo're as much use as a dolphin on a bicycle...'
She turned and pulled ahead of him and he was too busy trying to keep up to think of an answer. And what energy he did have left over for thinking was suddenly being used for thinking about the Gunner.
Saturday 20th January 2007