21st Oct 2011
The Sleeping Army by Francesca Simon
The Sleeping Army is the latest offering from Francesca Simon, a prolific and award-winning children’s author who is most famous for her impish anti-hero Horrid Henry ( Horrid Henry and the Abominable Snowman won the Children’s Book of the Year Award in 2008 at the British Book Awards). She has also written many books for younger children and early readers.
This novel aims at a slightly older audience and features reluctant heroine Freya, who lives in a familiar-yet-different England. In a parallel world where Christianity is an ‘exotic religious cult’ that died out ‘by the end of the 34th century’, the gods of Norse mythology are worshipped – or, by most, ignored, since secularism increasingly holds sway.
Simon has fun with household names: while KitKats escape unscathed, BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day comes from the Archpriest of York and Richard Dawkins has penned The Gods Delusion.
When Freya, bored in the British Museum, blows a ceremonial horn, she inadvertently transports herself to Asgard, land of the gods, alongside four chess pieces from another exhibit that miraculously come to life (the book is based on the Lewis chessmen).
Once there, she discovers that the gods are in desperate need of help – the goddess Idunn, guardian of the apples which grant immortality, has been kidnapped by Loki the trickster and given to a giant. Contrary to the myth, Idunn never returned and the gods are dying. (The myth itself was a political move worthy of Alistair Campbell on the gods’ part!)
However, the gods are unconvinced by Freya as their champion, and she herself candidly admits that the extent of her ‘spirit of adventure is trying a new vegetable’. So follows a rollicking adventure, in which Freya has to recover Idunn or become an ivory chess piece herself.
The plot takes in many of the Norse characters and myths, including the pitiable Hel, who rules the land of the dead and, despite her fearsome decomposing appearance, yearns for prettiness like any young girl.
Possibly because it’s aimed at a slightly younger audience, I didn’t feel the story had as much depth as it could have done, but it is chockfull of humour and you can’t help but feel sympathy for its characters – loyal Alfi, bullied by the gods, and the palsied, fallible gods themselves, who can’t remember their own spells and bicker about who used to get the most sacrifices.
And when all’s said and done, how can anyone resist a book with a character called Snot?
Tell us about any children’s books that you have found entertaining and educational in equal measure in the comments.
Francesca Simon is launching the book at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Saturday 22nd October at an event which will feature readings and themed activities for children aged nine and up.
Recommended for: Nine-year-olds and up who love a mix of mischief and magic, with a healthy dollop of history and legend.
Other recommended reading: Rick Riordan has already shown that myth and modern life can collide in the most exciting of ways in his acclaimed Percy Jackson series, which starts with Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief . Mainly focusing on the Greek gods, later books involve the Roman versions too. Recently he has made forays into Egyptian mythology with The Red Pyramid .
For an equally amusing and irreverent take from the non-fiction market, try The Vicious Vikings by Terry Deary and Martin Brown (one title in the televised Horrible Histories series).