Book reviews: Thrills, chills, queens and quests make magical winter reading

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone
Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone
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Soaring, mind-boggling adventures in winter wonderlands take star billing in a truly fantastic collection of January books for young readers.

Age 8 plus:

Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone

‘Once an adventure digs its claws in, there is not a lot you can do about it. Especially when magic is involved…’

So begins an epic, snow-filled odyssey, a modern day classic from Abi Elphinstone, author of The Dreamsnatcher, The Shadow Keeper and The Night Spinner, and one of the most exciting writers currently bewitching young readers.

Already crowned Waterstones’ Children’s Book of the Month for January, Sky Song – a fabulous fantasy epic with shades of CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia – is a sweeping, soaring tale of courage, ingenuity and friendship set in an extraordinary world that has been exquisitely imagined and then brought to vivid, breathtaking life.

Elphinstone famously travels the planet looking for her next story and for this spectacular new saga, her research saw her living with Kazakh eagle hunters in Mongolia and dog-sledding across the Arctic.

The result is an unforgettable treat, a spellbinding, thrilling ride through a snowy kingdom of mountains, forests and glaciers where polar bears roam the tundra, whales glide through the oceans and wolves stalk between the trees.

That land is Erkenwald, a cold, faraway place of glistening mystery and magic, a kingdom ruled by the impassive cruelty of the Ice Queen. Once upon a time, the tribes of Erkenwald lived in harmony but the ruthless Ice Queen has brought suspicion and enmity, turning the tribes against each other in her quest for immortality.

From the Driftlands to the Never Cliffs, the tribes lie hidden, afraid to become her prisoners at the dreaded Winterfang Palace where she is on a quest to swallow the voices of every man, woman and child.

Hope, however, is finding a way as two youngsters begin a perilous journey to seek out the magical and elusive Sky Song that will drive the Ice Queen back.

Eska, the girl who has escaped her freezing prison inside the Queen’s cursed music box, and her new eagle companion Balapan, team up with the clever young inventor Flint, his fox pup Pebble, and Flint’s sister Blu, a courageous Down’s girl with a big heart and lots of common sense. They are on a mission to save not just their land… but all the people too.

Elphinstone’s spectacular story speaks loudly of the power of human kindness, the value of acceptance and the eternal joys of friendship and family. Epic in scope and ethereal in its moral beauty, this is a classic tale that will stand the test of time.

(Simon & Schuster, paperback, £6.99)

Age 9 plus:

The Ice Garden by Guy Jones

Here’s a story to melt the hardest of hearts as we meet Jess, a girl with a sun allergy whose life is controlled by the hours of daylight.

This beautifully sculpted tale of a girl without hope or happiness, who steps out of the shadows into a magical garden of ice, is the stunning debut novel from Guy Jones, a theatre writer whose work includes the West End musical Never Forget.

Jess is allergic to the sun, she can only go outdoors in ‘the Hat,’ a long white hood that masks the whole of her face worn over something that looks like ski goggles. She lives in a world of shadows and hospitals, peeping out at other children in the playground from behind the curtains.

Jess has no friends of her own age. In fact, her only friend is Davey, a boy in the hospital, a boy in a coma, to whom she tells stories. One night she sneaks out to explore the empty playground she has longed to visit and where she discovers a beautiful impossibility… a magical garden made from ice but haunted by a strange darkness. And Jess isn’t alone in this fragile, in-between place, a place that seems trapped between dreaming and waking…

Jones creates a thrilling, spellbinding, ice-filled otherworld where fantasy meets reality and hopelessness is transformed into hope. The challenges of isolation, friendship, illness and a troubled mother-daughter relationship are explored with insight, warmth and wisdom to create an unforgettable and moving novel.

(Chicken House, paperback, £6.99)

Age 10 plus:

Below Zero by Dan Smith

Wrap up warm and head off to Antarctica for a chiller-thriller adventure courtesy of award-winning author Dan Smith.

This fresh and exciting no-holds-barred adventure, set against a remote research station in an icy wasteland, has all the spills, thrills and dark humour of Smith’s brilliant book, Boy X, but instead of the intense heat of the jungle, we shiver in the freezing cold.

Twelve-year-old Zak Reeve has been diagnosed with a serious illness which threatens his life but he has persuaded his scientist parents to take him along with them to a small Antarctic research base where they are hoping to solve a problem with the Spider drones they built for the Exodus space project.

But when their plane crash-lands on Outpost Zero, home of the base and one of the most isolated places on Earth, Zak finds himself in the middle of a cold, dark nightmare. The power is off and the people who live there have disappeared. Even worse, as he searches for answers, bizarre visions start to suggest a link to something else… something deep beneath the ice which only he can understand.

Braving non-stop action and a terrifying menace, Zak will discover an ancient, trapped creature that brings both danger… and death.

Smith’s fast-paced, all-action story explores the effects of artificial intelligence and technology on the environment as well as delivering a gripping, heart-thumping thriller perfect for young adventure-seekers.

(Chicken House, paperback, £6.99)

Age 7 plus:

The Ice Sea Pirates by Frida Nilsson

Cold-blooded pirates, hungry wolves and Arctic ice… Swedish author Frida Nilsson’s epic winter saga packs a powerful punch.

This thrilling and mesmerising story of a young girl’s quest to find her kidnapped sister has already won three Swedish awards and is now set to bowl over an English-speaking audience with its icy wonders.

Illustrated by David Barrow and translated by Peter Graves, and set in a remote, snow-covered land where the winters are so cold that the air freezes the sails of ships, this is a chilly, chilling adventure with a warm, ice-melting heart.

Sisters Siri and Miki live in Blue Bay with their elderly widowed father. It is a cold and forbidding place constantly threatened by the wicked pirate Captain Whitehead, a man who treats children as if they are animals.

Instead of a soul, he has ‘a space as empty and cold as an ice cave’ and captures children, ‘the smaller the better,’ to work on hands and knees in his diamond mine until their backs are broken or they die of disease.

When Miki is captured while the girls are picking winter berries, older sister Siri feels so responsible that she is determined to find her at any cost even if that means taking on ice, wolves, mermaids, pirates and the ruthless Captain Whitehead…

The Ice Sea Pirates is the spectacular story of one inspirational but still very ordinary girl’s extraordinary mission to rescue her precious sister, and a celebration of the power of love to overcome adversity.

Nilsson paints a stunning and dynamic landscape peopled by a remarkable cast of characters – some good, some bad – and filled with excitement, emotion, adventure and danger.

A modern classic in the making…

(Gecko Press, paperback, £7.99)

Age 9 plus:

Sky Chasers by Emma Carroll

Acclaimed author of six children’s novels, Emma Carroll takes to the skies for a high-flying adventure in a hot-air balloon.

Set in 18th century France and based on an original idea by Neal Jackson, winner of the Big Idea Competition, Sky Chasers is an enchanting story of history, adventure and overcoming fear from one of the most exciting voices in middle grade fiction.

Richly detailed, inspirational and steeped in real history, this is a thrilling adventure which is centred on the Montgolfier hot-air balloon which was unveiled before King Louis XVI of France and his court at Versailles in 1793 and was the wonder of its age.

Orphan Magpie can’t believe her eyes when she sees a boy swept off his feet by a kite… or something that twists and dances in the wind. The boy dangling from the sky is Pierre and he is set to change pickpocket Magpie’s life forever.

Just like Magpie, Pierre dreams of flying over the rooftops of Paris. His family, the Montgolfiers, are desperate to be the first to discover the secret of flight. Together with Pierre, Magpie is soon caught up in a world of inflatable bloomers, spies and a trio of unruly animals in a race to be the first to fly a hot-air balloon.

The world looks so different from on high and suddenly Magpie knows what she wants… to be the first to fly in a balloon above the King and Queen of France.

Friendship, hope, ambition and courage all play starring roles in this sweeping, soaring flyaway adventure in which discovery meets imagination, action collides with fantasy and two youngsters learn that following your dreams could take you higher than you ever thought possible!

(Chicken House, paperback, £6.99)