An exciting story that combines the very best elements of many children’s classics in a fresh and highly original way.
Twelve year old twins, Maudie and Arthur Brightstorm, are devastated when their explorer father doesn’t return from his expedition to South Polaris. To make matters worse, he and his crew are accused of breaking the explorer’s code which invalidates his insurance and leaves Maudie and Arthur with nothing and nowhere to live. Luckily, these resourceful twins refuse to give up and quickly develop their own plan to uncover the truth about their father’s death and clear the Brightstorm name. There is just one problem – they need to persuade sky-ship captain, Harriet Culpepper, to let them join her expedition to South Polaris.
My reading year started with Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone – a modern Narnia-style story set in a magical frozen world – and I didn’t expect this magnificent middle-grade adventure would be equalled for some time. I was wrong. Vashti Hardy’s debut Brightstorm introduces us to an even more exciting world and adventure.
As we travel from the First Continent through the Second Continent to the Third and the unexplored South Polaris, we are introduced to another magical frozen land. The world of the Brightstorm twins, however, reminds me much more of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy than the Chronicles of Narnia. The sapient creatures have clear echoes of Pullman’s deamons – from Parthena the hawk to the cat, Quennie, and the much more menacing silver insect linked to Eudora Vane. However, it is the thought wolves – particularly the brave and valiant Tuyok – who really stole my heart and large chunks of the story.
Our villain, Eudora Vane, also shares similarities with the sinister Ms Coulter of Pullman’s classic trilogy. However, author Vashti Hardy, is clearly mindful of her middle-grade audience and impressively manages to create a truly evil antagonist without the disturbing edge that could give younger readers nightmares.
Our lead characters are equally well drawn and it’s particularly nice to find the typical gender stereotypes so effectively turned on their head. Maudie is a talented engineer while it is Arthur who is assigned the task of supporting the sky-ship’s cook, Felicity. As with Sky Song, I was also impressed by the matter of fact integration of a disability. Arthur was born with one arm and has to adapt his life accordingly but, as with Blu in Sky Song, the focus is not on his disability but, instead, on Arthur’s struggle to contain his self-doubt, overcome his impulsive nature and find his place in the world without his father.
There is a strong cast of supporting characters (the sky-ship’s cook Felicity being my personal favourite) and a perfectly realised setting. The alternative world of the Brightstorm twins is so expertly described that never once do we question the societal norms of the First Continent, life in Lontown or the reality of sky-ships. Indeed, it’s testament to the power of the storytelling that the reader doesn’t blink when Ms Culpepper reveals where she’s been hiding her top secret sky-ship. (Sorry to tell you more could spoil your enjoyment of this wonderful story).
I’ve made a number of comparisons that could give the impression that this story is derivative. It’s not. Instead, it combines the very best of many children’s classics in a fresh and highly original way that pulls the reader into the world and doesn’t let them go until the end. It looks like Maudie and Arthur will be off on another adventure and I, for one, can’t wait to see where it takes them and what they learn along the way.
If you enjoyed this, you should definitely read Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone. Alternatively, if you’re looking for a very different setting you can’t do better than my absolute favourite middle-grade read of 2017 Mold and the Poison Plot by Lorraine Gregory.
Publication Date: March 2018
Author: Vashti Hardy
Review first published on The Bookbag