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This site is dedicated to exploring children's fiction.
I write it, read it, teach it and increasingly feel the need to talk about. Please feel free to join the conversation otherwise it will be a monologue and they can get quite dull.
My current project is concerned with transformations in children's writing.
If you have any suggestions or favourite books which deal with transformation please let me know.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Switchers Trilogy: Kate Thompson

This is the first novel I have read by Thompson, though she is well regarded and I can see why. The first book 'Switchers' began quite slowly but by chapter three I was hooked. It tells the story of Tess a young girl who can switch to any form of animal she chooses. She discovers an older boy, Kevin, who has the same ability and wants her help. She also learns that this ability will only last until they are fifteen, whatever form they are in when dawn breaks on their fifteenth birthday will be their final form. Kevin encourages her to take the form of a rat and she discovers the thought-language of rats. They guide the two children to Lizzie, an old lady and former switcher who tells them that the freakish weather conditions the planet is enduring are the result of the krools, vast creatures who eat by freezing and consuming everything in their path. She believes that they can prevent the krools from killing everything and so starts an adventure which has the children travel north as birds, whales, polar bears, mammoths and finally as dragons destroying the icy power of the krools through their heat. The children's story is intersected with details of governments' attempt to sort out the problem and the dragons are attacked by planes in the arctic circle who believe they and not the unseen krools are the source of the climate change. As dragons, the children ensure that the heat of the missiles hits the krools until they retreat and the climate returns to normal. On the evening of Kevin's birthday they are returning from the Arctic when he is hit by a missile and Tess returns home alone, believing him dead. It is only some months later when she sees a strange bird outside her window that she discovers the truth, the bird is Kevin, now a pheonix, risen from the ashes of his own destruction.
This rather blunt synopsis doesn't do justice do the many threads of this plot. Tess' relationship with her parents is well done, all the characters are convincingly drawn and the passages where the children talk with the rats are particularly effective: Thompson is great on conveying the sensory joy of flying, or running as a rat. The children's gift has its own kind of logic: Lizzie, Tess and Kevin are all outsiders who discover a talent Lizzie claims is innate in everyone, (though this does not seem wholly consistent with what occurs in the last book.) Lizzie herself seems rather wise by the end of the book than she appears early on, but this might reflect the characters' understanding of her.
In 'Midnight', the second book. another switcher, Martin, traumatised by the death of his father turns himself into a vampire, hoping to live for ever. When Tess asks for his help in rescuing Kevin-as-pheonix from the zoo, Martin bites her and claims that she too is now a vampire and on her death will become his. Martin has the rats searching for a crypt for them both to sleep out the days of their eternal life and, when he reveals his plan for her on the night before his fifteenth birthday, she points out that if she became a pheonix she too would be immortal. Martin sets out to prove her wrong by attempting to kill Kevin in Pheonix form. When Kevin is liberated both he and Martin grab her and she experiences their battle for her loyalty as a fight between good and evil. She finally rejects both their versions of immortality by screaming that she wants to be human. The power of this rebuttal restores both boys to their human form. Martin finally begins to grieve for his father and remains a boy on his fifteenth birthday.
This is certainly a new take on the vampire legend and Martin and Tess' relationship lacks the romance/sexual dimension that has recently swamped the fantasy genre. The existence of the pheonix, a creature of perfect goodness requires the existence of its opposite. I found this story the least satisfactory of the three, perhaps because the vampire seems a different order creature of myth from the dragon and Pheonix and the appeal of his dark world sits oddly with Tess' joy in the natural world. It also fits less well with the morally ambiguous Celtic tradition form which the stories seem to derive. The book works because Thompson is very good, but it does at times feel rather a strain.
The third book 'Wild Blood'has Tess staying with family in southern ireland, encountering her ancestors and learning the full extent of her powers. She meets her relative who chose at fifteen to become Sidhe, live for ever and retain his powers to switch. It is Kevin, who followed her to be present on her fifteenth birthday, who points out that the world needs the wisdom of the Switchers, to protect the natural world and the magical sites of the old ones. As a consequence she elects to remain human.
All three books are strongest when rooted in the natural world.
It is worth noting that in these stories the ability to switch is seen very much as a gift which bestows wisdom and, in the final book, this philosophical link with Celtic mythology is made explicit. This gives the series a kind of coherence and consistency that shape shifting fantasies can lack.

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