In her richly imagined prequel to The Song That Sings Us, Nicola Davies spins another epic story which tells us, among other things, how a tiger becomes the talking sea captain we met in her previous novel.
Those who have read and loved The Song That Sings Us will recognise many of the same elements of the world Davies created for that novel, a world in which Listeners (humans who have the power to communicate with animals) are beginning to face persecution, and the Automators who want to destroy nature are on the rise. But we are also introduced to many new aspects of this world, as Jackie Morris’s hand-drawn map shows us the kingdoms, forests, mountains and seas where this story will unfold.
Davies tells the story from a range of perspectives, and each of the opening chapters is therefore a brilliant set-piece in its own right: firstly, the birth of Skrimsli to a dying tigress in a travelling circus and the courage of the boy Owl in keeping him hidden from the brutal circus-owner; next, Kal and his horse Luja’s escape from a false charge of murder; then the efforts of the Palatine, a desert princess, to prevent the machinations of her brother and the Automators to destroy her kingdom with their railway. These characters’ paths all converge as they embark on a quest for justice and an end to tyranny and oppression. They face many dangers, not least a deadly pair of twin acrobatic assassins, and there are some harrowing scenes of cruelty and violence, but this book is also brimming with courage, loyalty and love.
This is another breathtaking novel in which Davies uses her alternate world to explore many of the threats facing humanity in our own world, including war, persecution, forced labour and environmental destruction, and to show how we can confront these threats. As one character remarks, ‘Stories show you what you can me if you are brave enough. […] We can choose to make a new story, together, and to stop living inside this old, sad tale.’
Davies’s writing is stunning as ever and, once again, feels unusually literary for YA fiction – I would love to use extracts with KS4 or KS5 students for them to analyse as the prose is so textured and evocative. This never gets in the way of the story, which is gripping and fast-paced, but rather enhances it. Skrimsli is a great novel to share with all readers in KS3 upwards, and I would particularly recommend it to anyone who has enjoyed Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials or Jakob Wegelius’s The Murderer’s Ape; it is a similarly vibrant and captivating story of humans and animals, but has a hopeful, urgent message of its own.
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