Like her teenage hero, O'Flanagan steps into a brand new world
Fiction: The Crystal Run, Sheila O'Flanagan, Hodder Children's Books, pbk, 400 pages, €13.99
Writing for children has never been more popular and the latest 'adult' novelist to jump ship (if only temporarily) is best-selling Irish author Sheila O'Flanagan. Her debut children's science-fiction novel, The Crystal Run, is being pitched as "a high-octane adventure" and certainly clips along at a lively pace.
The book opens in present-day England (to encourage English readers to pick it up, perhaps?) where young teenager Joe Hunter is being chased by a gang of boys who want his expensive headphones.
He reaches a "wall of shimmering metal right across the gap where the road should be" and falls through it. This 'wall' is, of course, a portal into another world, a magical doorway. Joe knows it's a different world as his mobile has no signal - though falling through a shimmering wall doesn't seem to concern him unduly. He hides behind a tub of flowers and watches some teenagers undertaking a strange obstacle course involving walls and a climbing net made of beams of energy. When one girl is left alone and is about to be impaled by a tearing black ribbon beam, Joe steps in and tries to save her, only to be shouted at in a strange language (he's still not all that alarmed - he seems to have nerves of steel).
Then this strange girl hands him a tiny shell-like translation cell which he puts in his ear. At this stage, the reader finds out something new about Joe, he's hard of hearing back on earth.
Over the next few chapters, we are told that the girl is Kaia Kukura (so similar to the whale-watching village in New Zealand, Kaikoura, that it rather distracted me) and she has been selected to protect her people, the Carcassians, from their enemy, the Kanabians. She is in training for The Crystal Run, where she and other teens must venture into enemy territory to replace the crystals that hold up their force-field shield (which has to be outside Carcassia to work). Once their job is done, they must poison themselves and die for their country.
After an interrogation by the elders of Carcassia, Joe is turned loose to accompany Kaia on her 'Run' and to find a portal back to earth or to die in the attempt, the blood kept off their hands.
Part two of the novel covers their 'Run' and here O'Flanagan gets into her sci-fi stride, introducing deadly lake whales, armies of huge spiders and human traps.
She also introduces clever ambiguity into the mix. Some of the Kanabians they meet are not the evil monsters Kaia has been led to believe. The military, on the other hand, are more cruel and deadly, even to their own people.
O'Flanagan's writing is crisp and concise and her plotting deft. However, apart from Joe and Kaia we do not get to know any of the other characters, even their fellow 'Runners', and many of them seem mere plot conveniences.
The Kanabia and Carcassia tribes would have benefited from a larger than life 'President Snow' (President of Panem in the Hunger Games) or a 'Jeanine Matthews' (Faction Leader in Divergent). Joe seems rather nonplussed at landing in this strange and dangerous new world. The quiet and compelling English teen has amazing composure but I would like to see more of his humanity and inner workings in the next book.
It's certainly an interesting debut and a brave move for O'Flanagan, who has a hugely successful career already. It shows a lot of promise and children of 10-plus who like fast-paced, action-packed stories will certainly enjoy this book.