It’s always worth celebrating fresh new voices in fantasy writing and Francesca Gibbons’s debut novel A Clock of Stars reveals her to be an accomplished world builder, a dab hand at controlling plot and action, and the creator of a sparkling cast of characters, good and bad, who will enter readers’ hearts. It opens, as so many magical adventures do, with our heroes going through a door into another world. Eleven year old Imogen and her little sister Marie are perfectly normal children, squabbling and bickering with each other, and with the self-centredness typical of their age, but on the other side of a strange door in a tree, they will make friends, defeat enemies and thanks to their uncomplicated understanding of what is right and just, make things better. They find themselves in danger the minute they arrive in the new world, chased by terrifying fanged monsters and saved at the last minute by a young boy who opens the doors of the city’s castle for them. He turns out to be young crown prince, Milo, a boy with problems of his own. The kingdom that he stands to inherit, Yaroslav, is divided and threatened by the skret, those fanged creatures, while his uncle/guardian is distracted, and the young woman set to become his aunt distinctly untrustworthy. If Imogen and Marie are going to find their way back home, they will need help, lots of it, and not just from Milo, but from the people his family has persecuted and the skret themselves who, it turns out, are not nearly as violent as they like to pretend – indeed, as one of girls’ allies points out, ‘It’s the monsters dressed as kings that you’ve really got to watch out for.’
Imogen, Marie and Milo make for great central characters and the supporting cast of castle staff and guards, townspeople and magical creatures (moths and some huge rideable birds) is positively Dickensian for number of eccentrics. While there is much that’s very funny, there are genuinely chilling moments too, including a number of murders, and for all the magic a sense of the problems we face in our own world: the destruction of the environment, racism, bigotry, and corrupt people in power. At almost 500 pages it might seem off-putting for some readers, but the chapters are short and the vitality of the story-telling will keep those pages turning. All this and illustrations by Chris Riddell too.