Review Blog

Mar 23 2012

The children of the king by Sonya Hartnett

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Penguin, 2012. ISBN 9781742535012.
(Ages 10+) Highly recommended. World War Two. From the vantage of her first class carriage, Cecily watches the evacuees being loaded onto the train. She feels for them in her own selfish way, wondering what she can do, whether to take an evacuee into her uncle's house, where they are to stay for the duration of the war, safe from the bombings in London. She talks her family into her scheme, and chooses one of the younger children, left sitting on the floor, overlooked by the others as they file out. But Cecily, wanting a demure, grateful sort of child, is sorely mistaken in her choice. May Bright is not afraid of anything, and often challenges and many times ignores the rules Cecily demands she obey.
One morning, May is nowhere to be seen, and Cecily, disappointed again at May's independence, finds her heading off into the scrubland around the Hall, plate in hand. Catching up, she finds that May is taking food to a pair of brothers hiding in the ruined castle beyond the woods, and so goes too. Here the girls find an odd pair of boys whom they assume to be escaped evacuees, but the reader can detect something much stranger. They meet several times over the next few weeks, May realising who they may be and encouraging them to escape their confines.
The plight of the two boys is paralleled by the story Uncle Peregrine tells each night after tea, concerning the castle on his land. He relates the story of the two princes in the tower, imprisoned by their uncle, the Duke, later King Richard 111. The boys' freedom and ability to grow up is restricted by their uncle, while their lives are cut short just as they approach their manhood. Their story is paralleled again by that of Cecily's brother, Jeremy, treated as a child by those about him, particularly his mother, hamstrung by his 14 years, cut off from the reality of war, a war in which he feels he should play a part. He feels he is old enough to kill, but his later experiences in London show him that he has become a man through his compassion and bravery, his courage and nobility in saving lives not destroying them.
Opening the pages of a new novel by Sonya Hartnett fills me with excitement and trepidation. I was there from the start, with the rather obnoxious Cecily and her disappointed older brother, Jeremy, the evacuee May and Uncle Peregrine, telling the story of the castle on his grounds. Power and its misuse dominate the story, as we hear of the bombings of London, the grasping of power by Hitler in trying to intimidate the Londoners, the power of Heloise over her son, Jeremy, the randomness of May's being chosen by Cecily and her thwarted attempts at gaining the upper hand over May. All is reflected by the story of the two boys in the tower, the appalling misuse of power by their uncle, whose need for power drives him to kill all those in this way.
Hartnett is never simple, there are always levels of meaning and understandings in her stories which provoke thought for days if not weeks after the book has been read and reread, discussed and pored over. At every level this is a breathtaking book.
Fran Knight

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