Review: The Tree of Seasons by Stephen Gately
(Hodder & Stoughton, €18.50)
Shortly after Stephen Gately's death, news emerged that the singer had almost finished his first children's novel, The Tree of Seasons. Back in November, when the book was signed up by publishers Hodder and Stoughton in the UK, and Hachette Ireland, plans were already afoot to promote the as yet unfinished fantasy novel. Stephen's widower, Andrew Cowles, was to complete the work, along with Boyzone; and Elton John was to write the foreword.
Four months later, with the help of two collaborators, including the Irish writer June Considine, the book is now a reality, much to the delight of Stephen's millions of fans worldwide.
The Tree of Seasons has already amassed a Facebook fan base of over 3,600 and Andrew Cowles has set out on extensive publicity campaign to promote the book and make Gately's dream of being a published author come true.
But what of the book itself?
Firstly, even though it has not been published by any of the Hachette children's books imprints, it is certainly a children's book, although considering his wide-ranging fan base, it will also be bought by and for adults.
Set in a fantasy world of enchanted trees, fairies, goblins, sea witches, and dragons, Stephen was clearly well read and the book owes a lot to children's storytellers of the past, especially Enid Blyton and Belfast man C S Lewis; and to the world of fairy tales, as re-created by his beloved Disney.
The book opens in time-honoured Blyton style, with three siblings -- Josh, Michael and Beth Lotts -- on the first day of their summer holidays. They become intrigued with lights in the sky over the gloomy forest surrounding their Great Aunt's house, Mayville Woods, or as they like to call it "Grimsville Woods" and set out to investigate, encountering "a strange little man", the kindly leprechaun-like woodsman Forester, along the way.
On their next visit to the woods, they narrowly avoid being detected by "Shift", an evil shape-shifting gargoyle who speaks in a "sibilant" voice and his mistress, the deadly Queen Gridelda, and are only saved from the clutches of the gruesome twosome by Forester's quick thinking.
The woodsman tells the children the secret of the Tree of Seasons, an ancient oak tree hidden in the depths of the wood, with its four doorways into magical lands, each representing a different season.
There's winter, or Icefroztica, ruled by the goblin king Darkfrost; spring, represented by New Blossomdale, ruled by the noble elf King Leafslear and populated by elves; and summer, or Brightisclearen, ruled by the lovely Queen Glendalock (get it?), with a large nod to Good Witch Glenda in the Wizard of Oz. Her people are fairies. And finally, autumn, in the guise of Duskcanister, ruled by the evil Queen Gridelda and her motley crew of shapeshifter and ghouls.
As with all good fantasy novels for younger children, the baddie, in this case Queen Gridelda, has a wicked plan -- to destroy the Tree of Seasons and rule both the enchanted world and the real world, keeping it in eternal, mouldering autumn. To prevent her from doing this, the children bravely agree to help Queen Glendalock (the good queen), Forester and his friend, including the fairy Bellatinks -- Gately's Tinkerbell -- by finding the "shards" or magic wands of the rulers who are under Gridelda's enchanted spells. (As is the children's aunt.)
The children are given magical items to help them on their quest -- a truth ring, an invisibility necklace, and an archery bow that never misses its target. And do they overcome the evil queen and restore harmony to the wood? I'll leave it up to you to guess!
Stephen packs a lot of different characters and concepts into the fast-paced 306 pages, yet also manages to squeeze in a "green" message about protecting our natural environment, and a strong anti-bullying message.
In fact, the novel, with its larger-than-life characters, central 'Tree of Seasons' idea, and sense of drama, would make, with the addition of some powerful songs, an excellent musical. Mention should also be made of the atmospheric black-and-white line drawings by Keith Wilson, a friend of Stephen's.
For a young man with no previous writing experience, the Tree of Seasons is quite an achievement. Will it stand the test of time, like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, or the Harry Potter series? Unlikely.
Will it delight and entertain millions of Stephen Gately and Boyzone fans? Absolutely.
'Writer' can now be added to the boy from Sheriff Street's long list of accomplishments.