Oh my goodness. Book Boy and I have been eagerly awaiting for the second instalment of Scarlett and Albert’s adventures (see my review of the first in the trilogy HERE) and now it’s here! This post also features a special piece by author, Jonathan Stroud, about the key roles and characters of the landscapes within his writing – I love that he’s reimagined the Home Counties as an English Wild West!
“Scarlett McCain and Albert Browne have outwitted their pursuers and escaped into the wilderness once more, and it’s not long before they become famous for their audacious heists across the Seven Kingdoms. Yet neither is fully able to escape the shackles of the past – as they discover when a dangerous job turns sour.
Soon old enemies and sinister new threats are pressing in on every side, and Scarlett and Browne must pull off an impossible mission and strike out against The Faith Houses and the Brothers of the Hand if they are to save the people they hold most dear.”
Landscapes by Jonathan Stroud
In fantasy books, landscape is a key component of the story – part of the plot, of course, but also integral to the book’s ambiance, personality and soul. It’s never irrelevant – it’s always a commentary on the quest or moral journey of the characters. In some of my series, I’ve used urban landscapes – and, most specifically, the urban landscapes of London – as the backdrop. In the Bartimaeus books, the conflict between magicians and djinn was played out in a darkly political London, where magicians ruled and enslaved spirits (often in human guise) spied on the downtrodden population. The story is ultimately about the struggle to rectify this unjust system. In the Lockwood & Co. series, London is different – this time it’s beset by an epidemic of hauntings, with hundreds killed by ghost-touch. There are curfews and ghost-lamps on each corner; at night, the city is deserted, except for the wandering dead. The usual familiar streets and parks take on a sinister significance when visited after dark. Here the story resolves into an attempt to uncover the cause of the scourge, and exorcise its curse from the city and surrounding countryside.
I’d always found London’s landscape to be especially useful in providing a weighty real-world framework for even the most extraordinary events. Somehow things felt more believable when set there. For the Scarlett and Browne books, however, I’ve thrown off this safety net altogether. I set the story in a far-future version of England, where unnamed catastrophes had radically altered the landscape, raising new hills, submerging low-lying areas, and burying cities beneath great blankets of ash. Not only have I moved away from London, the city itself has been completely destroyed and replaced by a shallow lagoon, with just a few eroded ruins poking up as islands in the vast flat seascape. The placid Home Counties that we know today have become an English Wild West, populated by strange wild beasts, cannibals and bandits. The whole narrative of the first book, The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne, was a journey along the length of a wilder, more perilous Thames. In the sequel, The Notorious Scarlett and Browne, we explore wider swathes of the broken kingdoms – venturing to Northumbria, where a vast, buried city (probably Leeds) is mined for ancient treasures. Much of the Midlands is desert; Anglia is half drowned, a land of tractless marshes. On some days the sky glows red with the fires of the Burning Regions across the sea.
Why did I choose to set my story in this alternative Britain? Partly it was a commentary on Englishness, and the fracture lines currently at work in our societies. The surviving towns in this post-apocalyptic world have turned away from the landscape around them. Their populations see danger behind every tree and rock, and view strangers, travellers and anyone who is “different” with great hostility. It is the “outlaws” who roam the wastes – the outcasts who are prepared to engage with the challenges of this world – who are ultimately the most sympathetic and admirable characters. Thus the first thing the landscape does is help to channel the moral dimension of the books, and their underlying satiric point.
A second, lighter, aspect of reimagining the British landscape this way is to create a comic effect via the disconnect between the wild and dangerous Thames Valley of the books, where giant otters and the man-eating Tainted roam, and the slightly more genteel reality of the real world. Scarlett starts her journey by robbing a bank in a fortified Cheltenham, crosses a forested Cotswolds, and goes on a raft journey through the flooded Oxford Sours – empty except for a few blackened ruins – before finally reaching the London Lagoon. In the second book, she is captured by enemies and imprisoned in the richest and most glamorous Surviving Town of all, a place of temples, palaces and grand bazaars –aka Milton Keynes.
Thirdly, you could make the argument that the unrolling landscape is a kind of reflection of the internal, or mental, landscape of the heroes, Albert and Scarlett. Terrible things have happened to them in it, and they are continually fleeing from what lies behind them. Redemption is hidden somewhere ahead – if they can summon the fortitude to find it. The wastes and wilds echo the moral challenges that they face as they move along… When all’s said and done, though, the most important function of the landscape is to provide a believable location for all the chases, fights, jokes and horrors that the author can dream up. Quite early in the process, I surrounded myself with Ordnance Survey maps of Southern England, measuring distances between towns, tracing rivers and tributaries, trying to imagine how the place would look, post-Cataclysm, when trees and water have taken over, and humanity’s remnants cower inside their last stockades. It was one of the most fun parts in writing this series to try to “see” this transformation clearly, and hopefully the readers will enjoy exploring the result too.
I have to admit, that I found it hard to imagine Milton Keynes as a place of ‘palaces and grand bazaars’ but Stroud’s vivid descriptions add so much to Scarlett and Albert’s adventures in terms of danger and menace that I became completely absorbed in their world.
Scarlett is just as outwardly tough and smart as she appeared in the first instalment in this trilogy but this time we learn more about the events which have shaped her and turned her into the person she is. Albert also starts to embrace elements of his past and begins to harness the great power within him.
This is an absolutely breathless, relentless read which will have tween (and adult) readers hanging on the edge of their seats screaming for the final instalment. I cannot wait to see how this story ends, but I know it’s going to be explosive! 12+
*Many thanks to Walker Books for inviting me to be a part of this blog tour*