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Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone review – an action-packed adventure

Abi Elphinstone’s setting is a land of forests, mountains and glaciers.
Abi Elphinstone’s setting is a land of forests, mountains and glaciers. Photograph: Simon & Schuster

Abi Elphinstone’s new novel begins with a memorable image: a girl crouches, frozen, under the glass dome of a music box, unable to move or speak, witnessing horrors in a winter palace, determined to escape and regain her unique voice.

Best known for her Dreamsnatcher trilogy, Elphinstone’s latest novel is an action-packed adventure and a truly magical tale (in both senses), set in the icy north. Erkenwald is a land of mountains, forests and glaciers; it is home to polar bears, eagles, whales and wolves, as well as to the Fur, Feather and Tusk tribes. In Elphinstone’s well-orchestrated mythology, the North Star, a Sky God “carved from stardust”, breathed life into the land that still retains traces of the magic of its creation. But “darkness can come to any kingdom and so it came to Erkenwald”.

The story begins after one of the lesser Sky Gods escapes from the glacier where she has been imprisoned. This evil Ice Queen gains control of the Tusk tribe, sowing discord and suspicion among the other tribes. She uses dark magic to create Winterfang Palace, a fortress made of ice, where she imprisons men, women and children, whose voices she must steal if she is to gain immortality. One of the imprisoned children is a girl named Eska. Trapped in her glass music box, she remembers nothing of her life before her enchantment. However, it becomes apparent that there is something unique about her voice that the Ice Queen is desperate to acquire.

Flint is a boy from the Fur tribe, who “usually only discovered where he was going halfway through a journey, and when he arrived he was often somewhere he hadn’t intended to be”. Flint breaks into the palace to free his mother, but stumbles on Eska first. In an unplanned rescue, the girl and boy escape, pursued by the Ice Queen, who will do whatever it takes to recapture Eska.

While Sky Song reworks tropes recognisable from many fairytales and modern classics, Elphinstone’s confident narration harnesses familiar material to its own purpose while creating a tale that is fresh and compelling. A dense prologue summarises Erkenwald’s creation story, which removes the need for exposition later and sets the scene ready for the main event.

It’s a children’s story that ticks a lot of boxes: two brave and resourceful children, a boy and a girl, who share a common goal and need to earn each other’s trust. They must outwit a formidable enemy and in so doing will test themselves and learn valuable lessons. The theme of belonging, in particular – to a tribe, to a family – runs through the narrative. “Belonging,” says one character, “is not about knowing your tribe. It’s about trusting people whatever their tribe … There are many ways to belong.” And young readers are sure to delight in a large cast of animal characters: a baby fox who hides in Flint’s hood, the golden eagle who teaches Eska how to fish, a spider who leaves messages in its web.

At the heart of this warm, imaginative tale is a sense of the magic to be found in the wilderness. As Eska learns: “You have the wild on your side and the wild doesn’t play by ordinary rules.”

• Linda Buckley-Archer’s The Many Lives of John Stone is published by Simon & Schuster.

Sky Song is published by Simon & Schuster. To order a copy for £5.94 (RRP £6.99) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

This article titled "Sky Song by Abi Elphinstone review – an action-packed adventure" was written by Linda Buckley-Archer, for The Guardian on Saturday 13 January 2018 09.30am

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