When I talk to Katherine Roberts about her first and her latest books, she remembers the excitement of winning an award with her debut novel as something which now has an air of unreality about it, tempered by the knowledge of the writers she has met since who have been published for twenty years without any of that kind of recognition. On the other hand, she is grateful for the kind of freedom that writing outside the glare of publicity gives, and we talk about the expectations around J.K.Rowling’s new adult book. ‘Would I like to be her now?’ Katherine muses. ‘Whatever she does now is going to get so much attention. The pressure there is immense.’
Katherine didn’t begin as a children’s writer, but as a writer of adult science fiction or fantasy short stories, for small magazines: ‘That was the kind of way you trained in those days, because you didn’t have creative writing courses at university. Everybody came up through the small press world.’ After reading Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’, she realised, ‘If this is children’s writing, this is where I want to be’ and adapted the book she was working on: ‘I knocked out some adult viewpoints. It’s a fantasy story as I would have written for adults but concentrating on the youngsters.’ This was the book that was eventually published as Song Quest.
Song Quest is such a remarkable book that it is hard to believe it has been out of print. It is remarkable to me not only for its power to create an entirely convincing magical other world, but also in its disturbing vision of the cruelty inflicted on the beautiful half human, half animal creatures of the sea and air, the Merlee and the Quetzal, that are perhaps the book’s most stunning creations.
In the twelve years that separate Song Quest and Sword of Light, Katherine has continued to explore epic worlds, sometimes through fantasy, sometimes through history. Song Quest was followed by two other novels set in the same world of the Singers. And more recently came I am the Great Horse, the story of Alexander the Great, told by his favourite horse, Bucephalus. Katherine herself is a rider accomplished enough to have ridden out for well-known racing stables, and her soft spot for horses finds expression in Sword of Light in faery horses that can telepathically communicate with their riders and dissolve into mist when the need arises.
Given her background in fantasy, Katherine admits that this latest venture has something inevitable about it. Arthur is Britain’s oldest, most enduring and most seductive myth, constantly reinterpreted in film and fiction. Katherine began Sword of Light just before Merlin appeared on our screens. Although, she’s a great fan of the TV series, she’s attempting something different with her take on the legend.
‘I didn’t want to do that young Arthur, young Merlin thing’ and Sword of Light begins where most Arthurian stories end, with the death of Arthur and his transportation to Avalon. It’s the story of Arthur’s previously unknown daughter, Rhianna, and her struggle with her cousin Mordred, her father’s slayer. Katherine was keen to have a girl at the centre of the action. She remembers her own love of Lord of the Rings as a child as being mixed with a certain disappointment: ‘I really wanted there to be a girl hobbit. It’s not fair. They’re all boys.’
Katherine also wanted to write for a younger audience and her new publisher, Templar, have done her proud with a satisfying chunky book, with a good sized print that will have definite appeal. ‘I’ve gone for a slightly younger feel. It’s more for 9 -11s rather than 12-14s. Although Song Quest was published for the 9-12s, the readers were actually 13, 14 and adult really.’ And she realised that she might have made a mistake with the way she structured the ‘Song Quest’ series, leaving ten years between the events in each book and introducing a new cast of child characters with each book. With the four books of the ‘Pendragon Legacy’, ‘It’s the first time I’ve done a series which follows the characters through. It’s taken me ten years to work out that’s what children like. They didn’t like me leaving the characters behind and writing about new ones.’
Her new series retains a lot that is familiar from the original Arthurian legends. Rhianna’s world is still that strange place that is not quite either the Middle or the Dark Ages, where the Romans have only just left, and there are knights, castles, jousting, and barbarian Saxons. Here it is bounded on one side by the faery world of Avalon, and, on the other by the dark spirit world of Annwn. From Annwn, the shade of Morgan le Fay directs Mordred, her son, and from here, too, the Shadrake, an ice breathing dragon, makes occasional forays into Rhianna’s world.
Katherine says, ‘I didn’t want to completely get away from that Hollywood view of Arthur.’ But what Sword of Light shows is an ability to take all the traditional elements, including the old knights clustered around the king at his death, the Round Table, Excalibur and the Grail, mix it with Celtic magic and folk and faery lore, and create a story that moves forward convincingly from the king’s death with four new principal young characters, including Elphin, Rhianna’s faery prince companion from Avalon. His entrancing harp is perhaps even more effective as a weapon than Excalibur itself, which Rhianna retrieves from the Lady of the Lake in this first story.
Each of the four books in the series is to be centred on one of the four ‘Magical Lights’ which hold the key to Camelot, including the Grail and Excalibur; and each book takes place in a different part of Arthur’s Britain. ‘We start with Avalon, and Glastonbury. And the second book Lance of Truth [due out in October] takes the knights north and they end up near Hadrian’s Wall. I’m following the Arthurian place names that are all over Britain. The third book, Crown of Dreams, which I am finishing at the moment, is set in Wales, dragon land. And the fourth book I haven’t quite decided yet.’
The four books also give Katherine the opportunity to develop her characters from book to book. The second girl in the story, Arianrhod, enters only in the second half of Sword of Light, and as Katherine says, ‘By the end of the third book, you’ll know more about her and where she fits in. And Cai, the squire, who’s nice but rather useless in the first book, develops a lot more in the second.’
Katherine wants to encourage her readers to reflect on some aspects of the Arthurian world, particularly that of combat and battle, which, despite the non-stop action of the books, she handles relatively circumspectly. She didn’t want to create a ‘kick-ass heroine’. ‘Partly because it’s for that younger readership, I don’t want it to be that kind of teenage very hard, gritty stuff. I’m hoping that when I talk to children in schools, it might be nice to think about how you can be powerful without taking your sword and chopping off everybody’s head.’
Katherine doesn’t quite know where the story will finally lead her. ‘I don’t know the ending. I am not like J.K. Rowling. I haven’t sealed it away. But the obvious happy ending, that Rhianna wakes up her dead father and brings him back to Camelot, isn’t going to happen.’ Yet, if the final destination for Katherine and her young readers is as yet unknown, it’s an exciting journey in prospect, as she adds her own distinctive contribution to the oldest of British stories.
Song Quest, Catnip, 978 1 8464 7136 0, £6.99 pbk.
I am the Great Horse, Chicken House, 978 1 9052 9427 5, £6.99 pbk
Sword of Light: Pendragon Legacy, Templar, 978 1 8487 7390 5, £9.99 hbk
Clive Barnes, formerly Principal Children’s Librarian, Southampton City is a freelance researcher and writer.