Reviews /

Fablehouse

Authored by E. L. Norry
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

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Fablehouse is a middle-grade historical fantasy adventure in which four of the ‘Brown Babies’ of post-war England team up with a Black knight to rescue their friends from a magical foe.

The novel is set in 1954 at an orphanage for the children of British women and Black American GIs. These children have all experienced loss, rejection and shame, but Fablehouse offers them a place where they can feel at home. The narrator Heather is soon befriended by Lloyd, Arlene and Nat, and together they enjoy exploring the beautiful grounds of Fablehouse, in particular an ancient stone cairn. However, this cairn turns out to be a portal to an underground Fae realm, guarded by Pal, a Black knight from the court of King Arthur. When the other children at Fablehouse are replaced by sinister changelings, Heather and her fellow Roamers must confront their fears to save the people they love.

This is a compelling and well-plotted story, and the mythic elements will appeal to fantasy fans whilst being engaging for all. The historical background, explored in greater detail in Lucy Bland’s Britain’s ‘Brown Babies’, is genuinely fascinating and will likely be unfamiliar to most young readers, as it was to me. It is estimated that there were around 2,000 children born to Black GIs and white British women in the 1940s, and nearly half of these grew up in children’s homes or orphanages because of the social stigma faced by their mothers; this same social stigma made it difficult to find families to adopt them. These children are an important but often overlooked part of 20th-century British history, and E. L. Norry here gives them the agency they deserve.

The decision to combine the children’s story with Arthurian legend is inspired: Pal is based on Palamedes, a real Knight of the Round Table, and his story reminds us that Black British history dates back to some of our earliest myths. His descriptions of the prejudice and discrimination he faced sound eerily familiar: ‘I was used to being jeered at by other knights, told I didn’t belong at their table. […] I had to do twice as much as even the weakest the most pathetic … And still they viewed me with derision. Somehow, they always found a way to make it sound as if what I’d achieved was only by chance.’

Above all, this book stands out for its emotional depth. Emma Norry grew up in the care system in Cardiff, and she is able to articulate the fears and longings of the children in this book with real compassion and authenticity. Early on in the novel, Heather describes how ‘the world soaked up our half-truths and wishes – all the tall tales we’d told since we were old enough to speak. None of us mentioned the thoughts that woke us in the middle of the night: what if no one ever came for us? What if we were alone, forever? What then?’ Later, she thinks better of telling Arlene off for over-reacting because ‘sometimes we cried over the silly stuff cos we couldn’t find the right words about what was really bothering us’. And a scene in which a changeling tells each of the Roamers what they most dread hearing about themselves packs a devastating emotional punch. In contrast to this, Pal becomes a wise and kind mentor to the children, giving them the strength they need to keep going; at Heather’s lowest ebb, he tells her ‘It is true that we enter into this world on our own, little one, and we leave on our own too – but you are not alone. To think that you are is the world’s cruellest trick.

This is bound to be a popular book with older primary and younger secondary readers. It could make a great class reader for upper KS2, with the potential to explore both the 20th-century and Arthurian contexts more fully. And the book includes an advert for a sequel, coming in 2024, so fans of this book won’t have to wait too long to join Heather, Pal and the Roamers on more adventures!