Sara Crowe’s excellent debut novel, while firmly set in the here and now, feels somehow timeless, a characteristic it shares with the very best fantasy writing for children, from Alan Garner to Susan Cooper.
15-year-old Ash is taking part in the annual Stag Chase, a wild race through the countryside in which one boy, the ‘stag’, is chased by a pack of human ‘hounds’. The land he runs through on his training sessions is parched and dry, the effects of the foot and mouth crisis still painfully clear to the locals. That damage to the land is echoed in the people around Ash: his best friend Mark’s father has committed suicide; his own father, a soldier just returned from a war zone, is suffering the effects of PTSD. While out on his runs, Ash is harrassed by the ghosts of long dead hounds and haunted by the death of a previous stag boy. He also comes up against Bone Jack, a strange and frightening figure, part shapeshifter and part Green Man, whose job it seems is to keep watch over the borders between this world and the next. The Stag Chase is bringing all sorts of things to a head and Mark, suffering his own sort of PTSD and living wild in the woods, understands this totally. It’s not a race he says, ‘It’s about the old ways. About life and death and the past and the land’. The narrative is alternately dreamy and urgent, but becomes increasingly tense as the day of the race draws near. Mark’s belief that only a human sacrifice will make things right feels horribly plausible, and inevitable.
What a rich and rewarding read, involving and compelling from start to finish. Crowe takes her inspiration from old legend, but has created a myth of her own with a story that feels fresh and relevant, and a delight in the dangerous wildness of nature that should send readers out into the woods!