S. F. Said is quickly becoming one of my auto-buy authors. His previous works, Varjak Paw and The Outlaw Varjak Paw, are beautiful adventure stories about discovering one’s own inner strength and learning to rely on friends (themes I love in children’s books), and his newest book, Phoenix, takes a look at some of the same issues, but in a vastly different way. Instead of the back alleys of a frozen city, seen from a cat’s-eye view, we have the most massive canvas of all opening up before us – the galaxy itself.
This book tells the story of a boy named Lucky who lives with his mother on a planet named Phoenix. His father, a famed military captain, is far away beyond the Spacewall fighting against the terrifying Alien race known as the Axxa, but despite this he seems ‘present’ in so many ways, as he is rarely far from Lucky’s thoughts. As the story opens, Lucky is dreaming. He feels himself soaring into the immensity of space, surrounded by stars, and an unknowable power begins to stir inside him – but when he wakes, he finds his clothes and bedsheets turned to ash. His mother reacts with terror, and a strange sort of foreboding, as though this was something she knew was going to happen one day, but she won’t explain what’s going on to her terrified son.
They go on the run, but in their efforts to leave Phoenix they are stopped. In the ensuing struggle, Lucky realises his mother is not everything she appears to be, and he barely escapes with his life. His unlikely rescuers? A crew of Axxa civilians, who agree to take him with them, anywhere but Phoenix. And so begins Lucky’s quest, not just across the galaxy, but also into the secrets which have surrounded his entire life. Are the Axxa really as bad as he’s been led to believe? Who, exactly, is his mother, and where did she get her jaw-dropping military skills from? After all the waiting and wondering, is his father really somewhere behind the Spacewall? And why does he feel, in his dreams, as though his entire body is filling up with the power of the cosmos – and what does it mean?
This book is immense. It’s a work of art. Stuffed full of the most beautiful drawings by acclaimed artist Dave McKean, who also brought Varjak Paw to life, it’s a memorable and moving intergalactic journey, the epic scale of which is mirrored in microcosm by Lucky’s internal voyage. He goes from being a lost and scared little boy to a person of such strength and self-belief by the story’s end, and the final few pages of this beautifully realised book are just perfectly imagined and written. As he travels across the universe in the company of his newfound friends, meeting Startalkers (people with the ability to ‘hear’ and communicate with particular stars, feeling what they feel) and prophets, Aliens and Humans, fantastic creatures and terrifying enemies, Lucky learns how much he has been kept from all his life, and how hard his parents tried to protect him. But, of course, as with all stories like this, he has to shuck off the mantle of protection and begin to take responsibility for himself, making his own decisions and coming to his own conclusions – and he does all this in style. He learns the secrets of his father’s astrolabe (a feature I loved), which is a mysterious navigational tool with the power to show its user the best route through the immensity of space to any point they wish to reach (and we finally find out why, whenever Lucky asks it to show him how to get to his father, it takes him off the ‘edge’ of the map, something which nobody had believed possible), and he gradually comes to terms with the depth and significance of his cosmic power.
The book has a deep ecological resonance, too, reminding its readers that we cannot simply take and use the natural resources offered to us (even on a galactic scale) without responsibility, as no matter how seemingly endless it appears, eventually every natural resource will become tapped out, and the result will be death for everyone. We learn about the ‘Wolf’ which is eating the stars, and the terrible toll this takes on the Startalkers, who must fade and die as their stars do. The myth of the Astraeus, the twelve immense beings – older and greater than gods – who live among the stars threads its way through the narrative and the art, and the huge themes of rending and destruction are counterpointed by Lucky’s realisation that, underneath it all, every living thing is the same, and Axxa and Human alike are more similar than different. He finds and loses love; he finds answers he didn’t know he was looking for. And eventually, he becomes the sort of man he could never have imagined.
S. F. Said is a hugely vocal advocate for children’s books and their power and value. His own work, Phoenix foremost, is a perfect example of what he’s talking about. This book is beautiful, imagination-grabbing, filled with themes of such scope and immensity that it simply has to be written for children, because it would be wasted on adults. As an object, this book gave me so much pleasure; it’s not just the story, which is good enough by itself, but the illustrations, which added to its visual and sensory appeal. It’s immersive and captivating and memorable, and one of my books of the year – in fact, probably one of my favourite books of all time. I heartily recommend it, for every child in your life.