After the excellent Kit series (see my reviews of The Dragon in the Library, The Monster in the Lake, and The Wizard in the Wood!) I’ll read anything Louie Stowell writes, and this Labyrinth-inspired tale of fairyland lives up to the hype!
Book: Otherland by Louie Stowell
Read before: No
Ownership: Proof copy sent free of charge by Nosy Crow. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Babies in danger and temporary death (not graphic).
Myra and Rohan were born at the same time, and they both died and were resuscitated right after birth – now they keep being thrown together by their families every year to celebrate their birthday, even though they couldn’t be more different people. At this chaotic birthday party, they’re struck by the worst disaster yet when Rohan’s baby sister Shilpa is stolen by the wicked fairy queen, Gloriana. Myra and Rohan are forced to put their issues aside as they race to rescue Shilpa before it’s too late – but fairies are tricky, and they’ll have to undertake the dangerous trials of the Knight Game to win her back… This is clever, fast-paced portal fantasy with bite, and I loved every moment!
I grew up on Grimm’s fairy tales and although I love a Disney movie, they aren’t at all what I think of when I think of fairy tales, so I loved the darkness and danger of this book! There are so many classic fairy tropes in here – these are no sanitised twinkly sweethearts, but properly scary folklore fairies, with all the traditional rules of etiquette and safety. This is a fairy world you could easily get lost in, and as Myra finds out, that might actually be pretty fun… until you lost your humanity as well as your way. Gloriana is a wonderful archetypal fairy, which makes her a villain with a very cinematic feel: dramatic, self-obsessed, and delightfully wicked. I loved every scene she was in! The Knight Game, with its three trials, feels delightfully folkloric, with shades of Tam Lin as well as Labyrinth – but don’t think that this isn’t a totally modern book! Both Rohan and Myra are definitely realistically modern kids, and there are plenty of up-to-date references too (Doctor Who, for one!).
Stowell has a real knack for a putting very specific but strange feelings into words, and there are wonderful turns of phrase dotted throughout that are totally unexpected and also completely apt at the same time. If I were the sort of person who highlighted books, I’d have been scribbling all over this whenever I found a clever sentence! Myra’s sort-of friendship with Rohan is particularly well-described; his anxious perfectionism sets her on edge almost tangibly, but it’s equally easy to empathise with his combination of worry and envy at her more chaotic behaviour. It’s great to see them grow together over the course of the book, but actually, I really enjoyed how accurate their awkward relationship felt at the start, and I think a lot of kids will have a friend or classmate they get lumped with that makes them feel the same way.
Basically, Otherland is a huge amount of fun, but with a very true-feeling heart. It reminds me a little of one of my favourite books from when I was younger, Poison by Chris Wooding, with its mix of dark magic and character development, but pitched for a younger audience. It would be absolutely perfect for middle grade readers who want a bit more bite from their fairy tales – and it suited me right down to the ground. Five out of five cats!