Where the wild things are: in the woods and (worse) in the plumbing, according to the latest best children’s books

Guillermo del Toro’s Trollhunters and Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder are properly scary — and sometimes wickedly funny

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

Trollhunters Guillermo del Toro and Daniel Kraus, illustrated by Sean Murray

Hot Key Books, pp.336, £12.99, ISBN: 9781471405198

The Wolf Wilder Katherine Rundell

Bloomsbury Children, pp.317, £12.99, ISBN: 9781408862582

In the Californian town of San Bernadino, children are going missing; smiling faces grace a gallery of milk cartons. One September evening in 1969, Jim Sturges’s brother Jack rides under a bridge and never comes out. All that’s left is his Sportcrest bike, its front wheel spinning.

Forty-five years later, 15-year-old Jim Junior lives in a state of reluctant siege. Traumatised by loss, his father has armour-clad their home, calling the cops if Jim gets home seconds after sunset. Jim has other problems, too; he and his friend Tub have caught the eye of Steve Jorgensen-Warner, the school bully. And now something nasty seems to be emerging from the sewers. To prevent another milk-carton epidemic, Jim must conquer terror, disgust and his father’s imprisoning fear, and accept his unenviable destiny. Trolls, it turns out, are real, hungry and all around, especially in the plumbing. And Jim is a Trollhunter.

The opening of Guillermo del Toro’s young-adult debut reads like an homage to Stephen King’s It, and there’s a compelling, King-like balance of the gory and the mundane throughout. This is, in every sense, a meaty book; the idea of human-as-comestible is lingered over in a way that might not surprise, considering del Toro’s grisly cinematic oeuvre and co-author Daniel Kraus’s horror pedigree. But Trollhunters is also wickedly funny, splendidly subversive and full of the carefully observed, painful preoccupations of adolescence. As Jim grows into his unwanted birthright, he navigates relationships of Möbius Strip-complexity, reconciling past with present to face the future head-on — familiar territory for young-adult novels, handled here with originality, intelligence and panache.

Meticulously visual, the prose directs the reader’s gaze. Claire, Jim’s exotic Scottish crush (complete with unlikely slang vocabulary), is ‘a vision of Juliet seen through a steampunk lens… dual ponytails intertwined to slap at her back like the supply hoses of an oxygen mask’. Troll-types are just as lovingly described, from Null-hullers who sick up their organs to slither into houses, to flat, vicious rust trolls who hunt implacably by scent — and Sean Murray’s involving illustrations reflect both humour and horror. While it occasionally seems as though the writers are having too much fun at their readers’ expense, Trollhunters feels, in the main, like a resounding success: a richly layered tale of teenage terror.

The Wolf Wilder, Katherine Rundell’s third novel, follows in the footsteps of the award-winning Rooftoppers to confirm Rundell’s place in the first rank of contemporary children’s authors. Feodora, daughter of a Russian wolf wilder, is training to become one herself; the opposite of tamers, wilders re-accustom domestic wolves to the wild when they’re cast off after injuring or boring their aristocratic owners. But revolution is rumbling, and suddenly the Tsar’s army declares that the wolves have been hunting illicit game. When her mother is arrested, Feo flees into the woods with only her pack for company. How can Feo save her mother, her wolves and herself from a terrible enemy — a man ‘with a face made of right angles…and wrinkles in angry places, deep enough to cast shadows in the dark’?

Rundell’s extraordinary writing evokes the bleak magic of a Russian winter, heartened with the blaze of hearths and the richness of shared skill, food and love. Her smooth-moving, sled-swift story is touched with transporting description; a three-page paean to ‘five kinds of cold’, from comparatively benign wind cold to the blind cold that kills within minutes, is balanced by the bright-lit joy of a village applauding a boy-soldier’s dance. Fear, hardship, loss and pain rub shoulders in this deceptively simple story, but it glimmers on in the mind like a gilded icon.

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