When Rose wakes from a sleep that seems to have blotted her past from memory and then discovers that her mother is not who (or what) she thought she was, she is thrown into a world of confusion, desperate to find her true identity.

Structured in three parts – ‘Luminelle’, ‘The Iron Wilderness’, and ‘The Forest’ – with a short coda, ‘Beyond the Boundaries’, North and the Only One focuses on Rose’s quest to explore the world as she finds it after her awakening. It is a strange world, filled with machines and holograms, a world that feels dangerous to Rose from the off and, for us as readers, it is the threat of A.I. that haunts the narrative.

Whilst our own digital world marches relentlessly on, it is becoming more apparent that the education of children (and their reading is a huge part of that!) is going to need to focus much more on the responsible development of technology. Hardy makes this clear with North and the Only One a fable for our own times. Twenty years ago, when Philip Reeve wrote the Mortal Engines books, their young readers would have been more astonished by their weird and (sometimes) wonderful machines and ways of life than, I think, today’s children reading a book like North and the Only One. Robots are still sources of wonder, of course, but they are such a huge part of every young person’s lives now, in a whole range of forms, that their appearance in children’s literature is no fantasy anymore. Science fiction becomes science reality…

A child reading North and the Only One will certainly have many questions. The novel is burgeoning with ideas, so much so that a proper reading and appreciation of Hardy’s message is going to benefit from much discussion and exploration. Yes, the story is wild and exciting, but once Rose has left Luminelle behind, and she is out in the Iron Wilderness and then The Forest, sensitive readers will understand that the strange characters Rose meets and the bizarre situations in which she finds herself are more than the sum of their parts. I have already mentioned Philip Reeve whose Mortal Engines and Railhead books set up similar themes of environmental concern and human greed in the context of technological advance but there are many salient echoes throughout that prompt the child-reader to think.

References to the power of story occur powerfully from around the half-way point in North and the Only One too: there are appearances from Shakespeare’s plays and the real-life inspirational stories of Ada Lovelace and Katherine Johnson, for example; but  Hardy’s literary allusions go deeper than that, incorporating motifs from the Bible (Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib bone, the Garden of Eden), Dante’s Divine Comedy (the three parts of Rose’s journey strongly invoke Hell, Purgatory and Paradise) and, perhaps most telling of all, the story of Pinocchio.

Carlo Collodi’s well-known fable about the wooden boy who just wants to be a real human being is remembered largely through Disney’s re-imagining. Those who know the original, however, will understand that the book’s message goes far deeper than entertaining escapades of big fish, wily foxes and donkey’s ears; it is a fable about the Human condition and it is no surprise that this North and the Only One, with its explicit nods to Collodi’s story (cricket-turned-holographic mouse, trees ‘growing’ coins, marionette theatres…) has this theme very much at its heart – a very appropriate homage to the power of Story.

Rose’s story – her ‘birth’, her learning, her morals, her hopes, disappointments, realisations about the world and her own place in it – unfolds against the backdrop of what technology, in the hands of less responsible humans (before her time), has created. On a grander scale, her story is a very timely one and as such must be considered carefully by young readers for its meaning to become clear.

There’s a moment at the end of the book where Rose says, ‘This feels like the end of one story and the beginning of another’. I do regret that Hardy (or the publishers) had not decided to go the whole hog and made this a triptych of books. There is so much to unpack! The novel’s energy and incredible inventiveness would not diminish over a broader canvas…but perhaps (as Rose hints) we can look forward to more development in future novels on the theme!