Sonya Hartnett is an author who needs no introduction. If she wasn’t already firmly established as the Australian YA writer before winning the Astrid Lingren Memorial Award for The Ghost’s Child, she certainly was afterwards.
Her latest book – The Children of the King (not to be confused with Princes) is targeted towards a younger audience, much like The Silver Donkey and The Midnight Zoo. Also like these titles, war is a primary theme – The Children of the King is set in World War II England.
Cecily and Jeremy Lockwood, along with their mother Heloise, are being evacuated from London to escape the bombings. They retreat to Heron Hall, home of their Uncle Peregrine, who serves as the benevolent but mysterious father-figure while the actual father of the family unit remains behind in London, due to his important work for the war.
While the bones of the novel are not dissimilar to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe it’s flavour is undoubtedly Hartnett-ian. Devoted followers of Hartnett’s work will find the characters vaguely familiar. Cecily is a passionate and bossy twelve year old, trying to keep control and order despite her rapidly changing environment. Fourteen year old Jeremy is the authoritative counterpart, who is grappling not only with the threshold between child and adult, but with what it means to be a man in a time of war. These struggles form a constant, bubbling tension throughout the book. Balancing out the trio is May – a ten year old evacuee that Cecily insists they billet. A serious child, May doesn’t take the spotlight from Cecily, but nevertheless drives the plot from simple information relaying…
‘Now don’t be afraid,’ [Cecily] warned portentously. ‘Uncle Peregrine won’t hurt you. Just answer what he asks and don’t say anything else, all right? Don’t talk about being rich or – or – about anything, all right?’
‘All right,’ said May.
‘Don’t ask where his wife is. He had one, but she died. She died, and their baby died, and now he’s all alone. So don’t ask about his wife and baby, all right?’
‘All right,’ repeated May.
‘And don’t say anything – impolite. You know what impoliteness is, don’t you?’
‘Good,’ said Cecily. ‘I want to be proud of you.’
– p 34
…to the mysterious discovery of two boys playing in castle ruins near Heron Hall.
Other Hartnett-ian tropes present in The Children of the King are her illuminating phrasings, crisp dialogue, and the utilisation of a story-within-the-story. Throughout the book Uncle Peregrine enthralls the children with the harrowing tale of King Richard III. Common to both periods of time is the quest for power, the unexpected importance of children, and the effects of war. Hartnett has a rhythm for oral storytelling, and even as a lone reader you are given the sense of a story being read to you.
Advanced readers will not find the central mystery of the book difficult to solve, but will still be rewarded with a beautiful reading experience, a rich modern history lesson, and strong moral themes worth contemplation. Hartnett has a gift for gently blurring the lines of reality to make stories that linger with you – The Children of the King is no exception.