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The Untameables

Authored by Clare Pollard
Illustrated by Reena Makwana
Published by The Emma Press

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The Untameables is a tale of daring, heroism, epic characters and magical creatures, spun from the Arthurian legends of tradition into a refreshingly original story that reflects contemporary themes and sensitivities.

In contrast with the pacified and harmonious kingdom of the canonical Arthurian myth, the author – Clare Pollard – writes of a court divided and jealous, of petty, selfish bullies vying for supremacy, favour and prosaic pleasures. Gone are the chivalrous knights, the romantic ideals, the purity of medieval virtue, the loyalty and pursue of duty. The search for the elusive but magical Holy Grail is still at the centre of the plot, but the protagonists here are two lowly, hardworking children, Roan and Elva, whose lives are full of hardship and sorrow. They embark on their quest for the miraculous Grail in order to save Roan’s mum – who is close to death – and to find the way to cure Elva’s painfully distorted back. In the process, their goodness, compassion and courage, as well as fondness for each other, gains them the help of magical creatures and fairies. Magic favours the brave and the deserving underdog.

The story unfolds at great pace and no word is misplaced or redundant. The descriptions of skies, forests, creatures and settings are particularly inspired and evocative. The main characters emerge from the pages with genuinely believable personalities: Roan is steadfast and humble, introverted and sensitive; Elva is a whirlwind of a girl, stubborn, exuberant and fiery. In contrast with the hazy, mythical undertones of the story, they feel very real and, most importantly, they feel like real children in whom young readers would easily recognise themselves. When the ending arrives, swift and thrilling, the revelation and outcome is even more satisfying because of the empathy the author has inspired for her characters.

The strength and charm of this book lies in the juxtaposition of ancient myth and modern voice; fantastical atmosphere and realism; the arrogance of power and privilege versus poverty and oppression. Thanks to the author’s sensitive subversion of tone and perspective, the story feels immortal and contemporary at the same time. Irony and humour sparkle through, used effectively to ‘turn the story upside down’, changing the traditional heroes into mediocre, arrogant beings, whilst the poor, the disabled, the humble become heroes, overcoming challenges thanks to devotion, courage, heart and loyalty.

The language is vibrant, colourful and evocative – I think one can feel that the author also writes poetry. The illustrations by Reena Makwana are fascinating and full of life, and an effective vehicle for the story – they remind of early medieval inscriptions.

The Untameables is a truly enjoyable and worthy read; a book that would suit KS2 children, both in Guided Reading sessions and for shared story time. It offers many prompts for deep discussion: what makes the hero (or main character) in a story and which of their attributes are worth having? Is it important that authors reflect and represent diverse characters and communities in their stories? Would including characters with a disability limit the scope and appeal of children’s books? Can a thoroughly ordinary or working-class character be as noble and engaging as a powerful or privileged one? Are tales of magic and fantasy more enjoyable than stories based around themes and characters rooted in reality? These, and more questions could be explored from sharing this book with children. In these tormented times of conflict and oppression for many, a particularly resonant passage – in which weapons turn into flowers in the aggressors’ hands – epitomises the hopeful heart of this story: respect, justice and peace.