Dark Peter Pan retelling has edges sharp enough to cut

Lost Boy by Christina Henry

Those who didn’t listen so well or weren’t happy as the singing birds in the trees found themselves in the fields of the Many-Eyed without a bow or left near the pirate camp or otherwise forgotten, for Peter had no time for boys who didn’t want his adventures.

Peter brings Jamie to his island because there are no rules and no grownups to make them mind. He brings boys from the Other Place to join in the fun, but Peter’s idea of fun is sharper then a pirate’s sword. Because it’s never been all fun and games on the island. Peter promised they would all be young and happy forever. Peter lies.

I picked up Lost Boy in Waterstones without ever having heard of it or its author before. I wasn’t expecting it to be anything special, but I haven’t been this excited to write about a book in a long while. This Peter Pan prequel turned out to be one of those unexpected reads that comes out of nowhere and completely knocks your socks off.

This is a brilliant novel. Fairy tale retellings are 10 a penny but this one is different; it has edges sharp enough to cut and will keep you up way past your bedtime. Henry creates incredible suspense – even though everyone already knows the story – so that you’re never sure what is just around the corner, or waiting on the next turn of the page.

Our narrator is Jamie, a boy who has been living on Peter Pan’s island for as long as he can remember. During all those years of never growing up, Jamie has looked up to Peter, has loved him with all his heart and trusted him always. But things are changing on the island, and Jamie starts to see Peter in a new light.

The Peter Pan of this book is one of the most frightening characters I’ve ever read. He cares only for fun and games, for adventures and laughter, but what matters to him most is that the other boys all adore him. The moment one of them starts to doubt him is the moment they no longer matter to him, and there are plenty of ways on the island for a careless boy to disappear.

Lost Boy is strongly reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, with its group of boys trapped on an island, the captivating claustrophobic atmosphere and the sense that something very, very bad is just seconds away from happening.

In Henry’s hands the sugar-sweet Disney-fied version of Peter Pan becomes a terrifying portrait of a ‘mad child’ whose idea of fun is killing pirates and watching boys fight to the death. The other boys are little more than toys that he picks up and puts down as he wishes, but he is so charming and brave that they can’t help but love him. Only Jamie understands Peter’s true cruel, manipulative nature, but even he isn’t immune to Peter’s influence.

I would highly recommend this book. Even if you’re not usually a fantasy fan, the characters and gripping storytelling will plunge you headfirst into a horrifying world of blood and loyalty, twisting and turning as it leads you to its thrilling, inexorable end.

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A beautifully written fairytale for fans of Erin Morgernstern and Naomi Novik

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

‘“All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”’

In a village in the wilderness of northern Russia, where snow falls for many months of the year, an elderly servant tells stories of sorcery and folklore, tales of old magic frowned upon by the church. But for young Vasya, these are more than just stories. She alone can see the house spirits that guard her home and sense the growing forces of dark magic in the woods.

This is a beautifully written fairytale, a unique and engrossing story that will appeal to fans of Erin Morgernstern and Naomi Novik. The Russian setting marks this book as something different, its atmosphere of superstition and old magic adding extra dimensions to what is, at its heart, the story of a girl who rebels against the restraints placed on her because of her gender.

Our protagonist, Vasya, is undoubtedly one of the best things about this novel. She is a great role model for girls, fearless and brave and always willing to do whatever needs to be done and to hell with the consequences. She refuses to bow down and meekly acknowledge the fact that she will either have to marry or go into a convent. She dares to ask why these are a woman’s only options, and why she cannot go out and see the world.

In fairytales characters are often easily recognisable stereotypes, but in this novel Arden has fleshed out each and every one of them so we know what drives them, what they fear and what they want. This makes the story that much more enjoyable as you find yourself sympathising with their plight.

The atmosphere is beautiful and otherworldly, full of both magic and monsters. You will find yourself transported to the snowy wilds of Russia, where spirits creep in the dark and a wrong step could mean the end of your life.

The writing is both lyrical and easy to read, immersing you in the wild lands of northern Rus and inviting you into a world where the only limits are what you can imagine.

I especially enjoyed the contrasts in this book. The contrast between Vasya and the other women who are content with their meagre lot in life; the contrast between old magic and the new rites of the church; the contrast between the snow outside and the fires burning inside. The effect is gripping and engrossing; so much so that you won’t want to turn the last page and finish the story.

I have to admit that parts of the ending left me disappointed. Arden sets up the forces of good and evil on either side of a battleground but the ending ultimately goes against everything that made the first two-thirds of the book so enjoyable.

Even despite these problems, I would still highly recommend this book to fans of fantasy and fairytale. This is a fairytale for adults, and it doesn’t lack in depth or complexity.

Many thanks to Penguin for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.