My copy of this children’s story comes with three pages of fulsome praise from writers as accomplished as Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson, and publications as noted as the Spectator, the New Statesman and the Sunday Times. They must have seen something I didn’t.
To me, this reads as though it were made up as the writer went along. Rather quickly. There’s a nice idea about tamed wolves being ‘re-trained’ to become real wolves again – which is then dropped; the wolves are simply wolves, and loyal to our heroine.
There’s a memorable, sadistic villain, but one whose soldiers can be repelled by mere snowballs. At the climax, children lead a rebellion against these villains, and then retreat to snowy, peaceful bliss. It may be ‘just’ a children’s book, but I think even kids these days might realize that you can’t beat up the Tsar’s secret police and simply go back to living happily ever after in the forest. And how can a ballet school administrator turn up as the story’s building to its climax? If he can find the children so easily, why can’t the Tsar’s men?
But it’s the language that really confounds me. Take the following sentence. ‘She closed her eyes and counted to ten, and prepared her fists and knees and heart to fight the world.’ I know what this means, but it hauls me right out of the story. Knees fighting the world? A description of men whose ‘shoes leaked toes’ stops me as I try to work how shoes can leak body parts. As for, ‘The roar of applause hit them like a solid wave. It was architectural,’ I really have no idea at all what that means. Architectural?
Some people like this. To them, it’s real writing, because it draws attention to itself. It shouts out, ‘Look, I’m writing!’ I find it an annoying distraction, one that only made me wish Katherine Rundell had devoted as much effort to the plot as she had to her verbal gymnastics.