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Every so often a book comes along which feels genuinely fresh - this for me was one of those. It's the first of a trilogy and was first published in 2003. I bought the set three years ago for my daughter(who was then aged 9) on a bit of a whim as I'd never heard of the books before, and they remain one of my best 'discoveries' - we both devoured them!
I would say the books are aimed at a slightly older age (my daughter has always been an advanced reader) - the hero is 13 in this first book, which is often a useful guide to reader age, as I think most children enjoy reading about people of a similar age or a year or two older. There's plenty in here for adults who enjoy junior fiction too.
The story begins in Costa Rica where Felix Sanders is on holiday with his parents. We learn that Felix has a very rare heart condition, complicated further by a rare blood group. Felix tells the guide "I pestered and pestered them to take me somewhere exciting before I died" - so right from the off, it is clear that Felix is not your average hero. His illness makes him small for his age, not strong, prone to pass out, and enforced rest means he has read a lot.
One of the things Felix is desperate to see in Costa Rica is the Continental Divide - a watershed, where all the water on one side of the imaginary line flows into the Atlantic, while all the water on the other side flows into the Pacific. On the excursion, however, his parents see he is tiring, and decide they need to turn back. Felix is having none of this, so while his parents are distracted he runs round the bend, out of sight, and makes his way to the Divide, which proves to be not far after all. The only trouble is, he really has overexerted himself and he passes out.
When he comes to, he finds himself in a different world, a world where the myths and legends of our world are true, and magic is real, although the mythical creatures have different names. The twist is that here, human beings are a myth, as are many of the creatures of our world. Science too is a myth. I loved this particular twist, a gentle challenge to children's natural perceptions that their reality is the only reality.
Pretty soon, Felix meets Betony, a tangle-child (elf). Betony is a bit of a rebel as she does not really want to be a herbalist like the rest of her people, and she has a secret hairbrush with which she brushes out the accepted tangles. Felix learns that Betony is on a mission to the brittlehorns (unicorns) bearing a message from one of their number who has died. She suggests that maybe the brittlehorns would know of a spell which could cure Felix ... and suddenly Felix dares to allow himself a glimmer of hope.
The rest of the story follows Felix and Betony on their quest to find a cure for Felix and to get him back across the Divide and home. I don't really want to go into much more of the plot as part of the joy of this book is all the unexpected turns the story takes.
All the characters Felix and Betony encounter are fantastically imagined and vividly described. Each type of creature has certain characteristics - for example japegrins (pixies) can do some magic, love practical jokes, are a bit shifty, have red hair and wear clashing purple clothes.
The main 'baddie' is a japegrin called Snakeweed who runs Global Panaceas - the equivalent of a corrupt pharmaceutical giant. This is an interesting plotline, exploring the ethics of selling untested potions and spells - clear parallels to our world.
My favourite characters are the brazzles (griffins). The main ones we meet are Ironclaw and Thornbeak. Ironclaw is a male brazzle - males are mathematicians - when we first meet him he has "just spent an hour or two playing with imaginary numbers". I have a mathematical background so the idea of a maths-loving griffin really appealed to me. Thornbeak is Ironclaw's mate - females are historians, and Thornbeak works in the library. We learn that due to having such different interests, male and female brazzles only meet up every century or so, to mate! This tickled me rather more than it did my daughter I feel.
The book is beautifully written - a thrilling adventure with loads of unexpected twists, and the reality of Felix's illness adds a poignancy and an urgency to the quest. The friendship between Felix and Betony is one of those teasing, caring, fiercely loyal friendships that you read about and want for yourself. Lots of genuinely funny bits and some truly original characters make this a sheer delight.
Extremely highly recommended!