Reviews /

Dungeon Runners

Authored by Kieran Larwood
Illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton
Published by Nosy Crow Ltd

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Kieran Larwood and Joe Todd-Stanton have joined creative forces to develop a new fantasy-adventure series that will inspire younger readers.

Set in the fantasy land of Zerb – and complete with Tolkien-inspired maps that hint at future books in the series – Kit Kitson is happily watching his heroes partake in the national sport of dungeon running, a dangerous pastime that only the strongest or bravest enter into. As he is watching, an opening for a new team is announced, and Kit hatches a plan…sort of.

Despite not having the required team of three (a fighter, a healer and a mage), Kit decides to plough ahead, and creates an advertisement, answered in one form or another by Sandy Sanders, a sea hag with a pet crab (think Pullman’s familiars), and Thorn, a vegan vampire. Not the most inspiring of teams, and roundly laughed at for their inexperience and general lack of reputation. Nevertheless, their entry into the trial is accepted, and they have the chance to take on three other teams in the dungeon of Grotville, one of many mazes replete with booby-traps, tricks and monsters, devised by the legendary mage, Noctis. If they gain enough points through collecting treasure and defeating beasts, they could win the trial and gain entry into the National Dungeon League. But do the three youngsters have enough about them?

I raced through this book and can see it appealing to so many different groups of readers. It could be read as a class read, an adventure that is quick and exciting, with fantasy characters such as gnorfs (half-gnome, half-dwarf), spidlings (a human-spider hybrid) and troggles, an ogre/troll-type creature. Alongside them are more traditional dwarves and elves, and Tolkien’s arsenal of adventurous quests has been made more accessible to independent readers in lower Key Stage 2 – even confident Year 2 children could pick this up and run with it. That said, I would happily recommend this to fantasy fans in Year 6: there is a feast for the imagination here.

Joe Todd-Stanton’s reputation now precedes him, and he surely must be one of the finest illustrators in the business. Here, his monochrome work adds darkness where needed, and particularly helps to develop characters for eager readers. The elf who deals with Kit’s application at the start could have a whole story written about him, for example. Monsters are brought to life, danger is writ large through the use of size and perspective, and I particularly liked the cutaways to the commentators Dirk and Jenna, whose enthusiastic sports commentary style will be familiar to many.

As the story progresses, and main characters are introduced, we are also given a stats card that displays their skills (or lack of!), such as cleverness, magic powers, combat ability and level of fame. These will be familiar to children who have played Top Trumps, YuGiOh! or Magic: The Gathering, and are ripe for rich discussion about characters – perhaps these attributes will change as Kit, Sandy and Thorn move through the levels.

The idea of levelling-up, this gamification of story, is one that will really catch on, and I can’t wait to see how it moves forward. Kieran Larwood has already confirmed there will be four books in the series; the potential here is endless. Brilliant!