Let's just ignore the fact that this is for "younger readers," shall we? Why should they get all the best books? Steve Cockayne, who is already one of our finest fantasy authors, has produced something edgy, liminal, and deeply disturbing, and very, very English. The Good People is a tale of hill and dale, of coppice and stream, of hobs supping at the hearth and Saxon bowmen lurking in the hedgerows. The Good People constructs the world through fractured glass, in which glimpses and half glimpses must be stitched together to make a whole, but there is more than one jigsaw here. This is a tale made of gauze, always blurry, a world in which the fantastic leaks and shimmers and it is the real world that is held in doubt, in which the losses of adolescence become the metaphor for the thinned world.
It is 1939 and Kenneth and his older brother Robert live in Hedley House with their parents and their mother's mother. In fine Swallows and Amazons tradition they play in the grounds and in the woods around it, organising sorties against the Barbarians and styling themselves Lords of Arboria. Each morning as they go through the gate, Kenneth says good morning to Tommy Pelling, who smiles, gives advice as to what they will find in Arboria that day, and hands them their bows and arrows. Each morning they climb up into the House in the Air and plan their day and call on their armies, and the armies are seen in the movement of the trees.
And so it goes. When Janny, the evacuee with the weeping eyes, arrives she is incorporated into Arboria and the game goes on, across the stream and bounded by the lake. But there is a history to the game of Arboria. It seems to have been played for many generations. When Robert appoints himself the High Lord, their grandmother draws Kenneth aside and gifts him a scroll, which contains all the story of Arboria, a country which has always belonged to the children of Hedley House. Here are the first two mysteries, for Gran is a Hedley and the children are Storeys, but the house has passed back and forth between the two families for longer than anyone can remember, and the scroll. . . . The scroll is made of paper at the end, but parchment earlier on, and as Kenneth unrolls it in the long gallery he reaches thicker hide, and Latin writing, and eventually Janny identifies the earliest script as runes.
Other mysteries start to edge into the picture. With the arrival of Janny our attention is drawn to the fact that she can't see Tommy Pelling. Neither, it turns out, can Robert, although he can hear him. Granny seems to know more than she ever states, her tales of the Good People underlie Arboria, they don't explain it—and what is in the ointment she makes for Janny's eyes?
The complement of children is full when Nadia, an eastern European refugee whose parents are in an internment camp, arrives. Unable to walk well, Nadia is a graceful swimmer and her place in Arboria is secured when she provides a way for them to scout the other side of the lake.
Time moves on, the war creeps closer. The boys' parents die in an accident and Robert, growing up now, goes to live with his uncle Magnus leaving Kenneth behind with Janny and Nadia. As the tale develops fissures begin to open up between what Kenneth is telling us and what the others appear to see. Kenneth, uneducated and increasingly alone is to some extent a wild child, lacking the words for the things he sees, but there is also the growing sense that for Kenneth, Arboria is more than a game. As we see Arboria through Kenneth's eyes, the result is a sense of the growing insanity of the world as first Robert, and then Janny and Nadia deny the palpably true.
Kenneth may of course be mad. Part way through the book he descends into faery to rescue his brother Robert from a world of dark gaolers and half starved prisoners in grey lodden suits. To the world, Kenneth is in a fever, stuck in bed while his brother works Uncle Magnus's printworks. Janny and Nadia are growing up and slowly but surely, pulling themselves away from Arboria, while Davy Hearn the gardener's boy, who seems always to have been at Hedley House, resolves into reality. By the end, Kenneth is alone with his beloved Arboria; how and why, I will leave to the reader to discover.
Farah Mendlesohn is the editor of Foundation.