Reviews /

Impossible Creatures

Authored by Katherine Rundell
Illustrated by Tomislav Tomić
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

In her blazing manifesto for children’s literature, Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, Katherine Rundell writes that ‘When you read a children’s book, you are given the space to read again as a child: to find your way back, back to the time when new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened, as if it were an optional extra.‘ This has scarcely felt truer of any children’s book I have read than Rundell’s new fantasy novel, Impossible Creatures. 

Even before the story has begun, this book offers us a feast for the imagination, from the endpapers adorned with Virginia Allyn’s beautiful map of the Archipelago where the novel is set, to the ‘Guardian’s Bestiary‘ of the titular creatures, captivatingly illustrated by Tomislav Tomić and described with wonder and wit by Rundell (for instance, we are told that the Karakadann ‘can be kept at bay with the horn of a unicorn, but, as you are extremely unlikely to have a unicorn to hand, that is frankly of limited use.‘)

This same tone pervades the story itself which begins with a boy named Christopher fighting off what we know from the Bestiary to be a ferocious bear-sized dog named a Kludde (‘It says, therefore, a great deal in Christopher’s favour that he refused – with speed and cunning and courage – to be eaten.‘) Christopher comes from our world but discovers that his grandfather is a guardian of the way between this world and the Archipelago where magical creatures such as dragons, centaurs and griffins live, sustained by a magical force known as ‘the glimourie‘. However, trouble is afoot in the Archipelago: ‘There is some darkness passing over the islands. Something corrosive, unknown and unseen. The creatures are dying.

Christopher soon encounters Mal, a girl from the Archipelago who is able to fly with the aid of a special coat and is on the run from a murderer. Together, they travel the Archipelago in order to find out what is happening to the glimourie and how they can stop it. Rundell crafts a thrilling odyssey as Christopher and Mal voyage between weird and wonderful locations populated by a menagerie of fantastical creatures. The story is full of peril and moments of devastating emotional intensity, but this allows for true displays of courage and heroism, particularly from the two young protagonists: as one character observes, ‘Children have been underestimated for centuries.’

Fans of The Golden Mole, Rundell’s bestiary of endangered species, will immediately recognise her passionate ecological message which is also at the heart of Impossible Creatures. This is fundamentally a novel about the breathtaking beauty of our world and how this is being destroyed by human greed. Rundell invites us to join in lamenting what has been irrevocably lost but balances this with joy and hope: as Mal observes, ‘greater than the world’s chaos are its miracles.‘ Comparisons with Narnia and His Dark Materials are fully justified but Rundell’s environmental message gives this story an urgency which will resonate with all young readers today who worry about the future of the planet, whilst also reassuring them that their generation has the bravery and resourcefulness to save it.

Rundell’s writing is so full of wonder, wisdom and humour that I could carry on quoting from almost every page, but to summarise, this is an outstanding novel which deserves to become a future children’s classic, as it surely will. Because of some of the scenes of jeopardy and violence, it is probably most suitable for sharing with Year 5 and above (though plenty of younger readers will doubtless enjoy it, depending on their maturity). There is more than enough depth to reward study at KS3 and there is no upper age limit on enjoying this story: everyone who reads it will find them eagerly awaiting the next instalment of this trilogy!

Winner of the British Book Awards 2024 Fiction Category