From the Wolves series, featuring Dido Twite, I had already come to regard Joan Aiken as a wonderful writer with a flair for colloquial British speech, humor, adventure, and the clash of titanic forces of good and evil. From Diana Wynne Jones’ Deep Secret I had come to regard the Starscape label as being possibly the best-kept secret in young-adult fiction. Both of these impressions are confirmed by The Cockatrice Boys, a Starscape book by the daughter of American poet Conrad Aiken. Besides being a daringly original, funny, scary, and morally instructive book, it also contains one of the strongest statements of the purpose of fantasy stories and fairy tales:
“People need stories…to remind them that reality is not only what we can see or smell or touch. Reality is in as many layers as the globe we live on itself, going inwards to a central core of red-hot mystery, and outwards to unguessable space. People’s minds need detaching, every now and then, from the plain necessities of daily life. People need to be reminded of these other dimensions above us and below us. Stories do that.”
This story is about an invasion of monsters that brings civilization in Great Britain crashing down. These creatures, of unknown origin, come in many varieties from bycorns, footmonsters, kelpies, and trolls to snarks, gorgons, basilisks and telepods–this is only a partial listing, mind you. Nevertheless, they are grouped under the general term of Cockatrices, and it is to battle the Cockatrices that the Cockatrice Corps is formed. Armed with snark masks, kelpie knives and ray guns, they set out on the stellar-powered armored train Cockatrice Belle to battle the beasties and bring needed supplies to the scattered remnants of the British race.
Among the brave members of the crew is a young drummer-boy named Dakin, who finds his future- seeing cousin Sauna being held prisoner by a wicked old aunt in Manchester. This pair, together with a German-speaking dog (!) named Uli, become critical to the mission. For not only man-eating monsters are abroad; there are also traitors, witches, and foul powers of darkness at work, gathering their powers for a diabolical purpose to be revealed on King Edward’s Day. It has something to do with a text penned by a medieval astrologer; and again something to do with two dolls that have a pin stuck through them; and again something to do with the cosmic battle between good and evil that even the Archbishop of Lincoln is hard-put to explain.
I’ve already said what I think of this book, but I want to add two more things. First, I really enjoyed the cover art by Gris Grimly. And second, I’m going to seek out other Starscape books, whose authors include some of the biggest names in sci-fi and fantasy, and whose titles look quite interesting!