REVIEWED BY TRICIA GILBEY
(Bloomsbury: 2023) by Katherine Rundell
Katherine Rundell’s previous books for children are wonderful adventure stories with lovingly drawn characters, much heart, and an arch wit. She hops from heist to mystery to historical within this, but her latest book is quite literally a step into a new realm.
Impossible Creatures is the story of Christopher Forrester, a boy to whom animals have always been drawn. Christopher goes to Scotland for a holiday with his grandfather. There he discovers a portal to a hidden land, known as the Archipelago, where all the creatures of myth live side by side with humans. He meets Mal Arvorian, a girl who has a coat which allows her to fly. She is sheltering a little griffin called Gelifen and has been monitoring the forests and knows that something is not right: creatures are dying, the soil too, and the glimourie – the magical protection which isolates this place from the rest of our world – seems to be fading. At the same time someone is after them, and Katherine Rundell is characteristically direct, calling him ‘the murderer’. Very soon Mal is orphaned and on the run. Christopher helps her and Gelifen to escape and they end up on the boat of a berserker – a larger- than-life character known as Nighthand. Their mission is punctuated by encounters with the creatures from the Guardian’s Bestiary at the front of the book. Each has their own powerful desires and drives, and this means that the world is hard to navigate.
Katherine Rundell has given some fascinating interviews about this book, hailed as a modern classic already, and the first in a series about the Archipelago. She is a huge fantasy fan herself and says she has read The Hobbit 60-100 times and has also been influenced by authors such as Philip Pullman, C. S. Lewis and Alan Garner. She says: ‘Fantasy has for so long been a way of talking to ourselves about our most knotty and entangled souls’ and that children need philosophy, to think about why we’re alive, power, love and human endurance, and it is this last one that really came through for me, especially in Mal Arvorian who is a wonderfully complex character.
As we head into an uncertain future, I think that books like this, which courageously confront our deepest fears, challenges and joys, will be increasingly important to children. Katherine Rundell wants to give them a sense of the marvels the human imagination has conjured – her bestiary includes creatures from diverse cultures. She also says that if we weren’t used to some of the creatures which exist for real in our world, we would certainly travel far and wide to seek them out. She has the gift of being able to translate her own wonder about our amazing natural world to the page, and although the next instalment in this series won’t be out for a couple of years, I feel sure that our sense of wonder at her sparkling imagination is only destined to grow.