The Battle of the Sun by Jeanette Winterson | Book review

Philip Ardagh is mesmerised by a 'tapestry of a tale'

On first picking up a copy of this, the second of Winterson's books for children, there's nothing to suggest that it's a sequel to her first, Tanglewreck. It's not until around halfway through that Silver, the 21st-century heroine of Tanglewreck, puts in an appearance, and the reader even has to wait a little longer before she's identified as such. That's because, in essence, The Battle of the Sun is a "stand alone" title: one which can be read without the reader needing prior knowledge of characters and events of the earlier adventure. That being said, villains will seem even more villainous and tensions all the more tense for those familiar with the machinations of these previous encounters.

The Battle of the Sun is set in London in 1601, much of it in and around the Dark House, home to the mysterious Magus and a rich seam of wonderfully realised characters. This is a beautifully crafted tale where names and descriptions have been selected and shaped with consummate skill. We have Jack Snap, the Radiant Boy, and hero of this tale along with his arch nemesis, the Magus. We have the Sunken King in a big glass tank with his crown "sunk deep on to his head, and his head sunk low on to his chest" with his stomach low on his legs and his legs deep in the water. We have the all-important Cinnabar Egg (what a name), the dragon who is both the moat around the Dark House and yet not the moat (quantum physicists will probably grasp this concept most quickly); the Knight Summoned, waiting upon the hour when he "shall know what is to be known"; and the truly inspired Creature Sawn in Two.

Once one, the creature is now "cut in half, straight down the middle, as you would split and serve a salmon", resulting in two half-people, one male, one female. The male half is Wedge, the female Mistress Split. Since becoming two, there is a constant rivalry between the one-armed, one‑legged pair and when Mistress Split acquires a dog – which she refers to as her beloved Boojie – Wedge is eager that it be cut in half and shared, one eye, one ear, two legs each. He, meanwhile, spends much of the latter half of the book attempting to hatch a coconut he mistakenly believed to be the magical egg.

But don't be fooled. Humour is just one weave in this resplendent tapestry of a tale with its wholly convincing backdrop of early 17th-century London slightly askew. There's a real sense of excitement and intrigue as the Magus plans to turn London and everything in it into gold. And if you've spotted that this poetic plan is fundamentally flawed, have no fear, for so has Magus – or, more to the point, Winterson. The Magus has a hidden agenda, and the end is very satisfying indeed. His, however, is not the only villainy afoot, and Queen Elizabeth I herself, along with her Barbary parrot and her real-life alchemist, astrologer adviser John Dee, become embroiled in delicious skulduggery.

It's obvious in every word, every plot twist, and every character that Winterson had fun writing The Battle of the Sun. This book radiates enjoyment, and the reader can bask in it. I was mesmerised by craft of an endlessly inventive author writing at the height of her powers.

Philip Ardagh's Grubtown Tales: Stinking Rich & Just Plain Stinky is published by Faber.


Philip Ardagh

The GuardianTramp

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