Penguin Australia (2012)
Reviewed by Judi Jagger
In The Children of the King, Sonya Hartnett weaves a tale of two eras: wartime Britain meets the Princes in the Tower. It seems unlikely, and in lesser hands such ambition would fall flat, but Hartnett’s gift for storytelling ensures that we never doubt the possibility.
Evacuation from the bombing in London sees the lives of Cecily and May come together. Cecily is a child of privilege, and she chooses May, almost as she would choose a pet, from the straggle of frightened and lonely children seeking new arrangements. May is an enterprising and adventurous child and the early chapters appear to pay homage to the Enid Blyton stories of the time. In the course of their adventures, the girls visit a nearby castle and hence the second strand of the story emerges.Whilst the plot is engaging, it is the themes that Hartnett covers that are compelling. Power, the class system, the end of childhood, war and those who administer it from afar are just some that she explores. On the simplest level in the classroom, the two historical threads alone offer rich possibilities. The beauty of Hartnett’s writing is at times startling with imagery scattered throughout like carefully placed jewels. Her characters are complex, particularly Cecily’s brother Jeremy, still a child but desperately wanting to be a man. Her mother Heloise, too, is a woman of her class and very much in denial. The absence of May’s mother is all the more poignant as we ponder how much stronger than Heloise she needs to be.
The Children of the King is accessible on many levels, and all the richer for multiple readings. The hardcover edition has a subtle and beautiful cover in a camouflage palette that, for all its appeal to adults, might deter the target readership. Once sold to them, however, they are sure to find this a memorable read.