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17 May 2016 @ 10:58 am
Review of The Crystal Stair by Catherine Fisher, pub. Barrington Stoke 2016  

Caz had a fragmented view of something impossible. Caught in the light of the torch was a huge body like a snail, boneless, fluidly rippling. Rust-orange marks striped its sides. Its flesh was an almost-transparent brown. Two pinpoint black eyes swivelled on long, slow muscles.

She swallowed a scream.

The huge moving mass streamed towards her, clogging the tunnel.

This is the sequel to At the World's End, also a Barrington Stoke book. The whole Barrington Stoke list is designed for children who have reading difficulties, to tempt them with books whose reading age is adapted to their ability but whose level of interest is suited to their actual age (this particular one is aimed at reading age 8, interest level teen). The label's remit includes the physical difficulties of dyslexia, hence the font and the off-white, non-see-through paper, but also the problems of "those who haven’t built up the reading stamina yet to manage complex language structures and non-linear plots."

Obviously this imposes constraints. It isn't just that you can't be too linguistically fancy: you can't make your plots and characters too convoluted either. These are not the kind of readers who will willingly look back and check on what they might have missed or mistaken, so you can't do much flipping between plot strands and time zones, nor play around with unreliable narration or morally complex characters who might be goodies, baddies or both by turns.

Since these are all formidable weapons in Fisher's normal armoury, you might expect her to have trouble doing without them. In fact, though, she simply gets down to it and deploys others. Linear narratives can be great page-turners, and this one is extremely pacy, culminating in what's basically a straight but very exciting race and duel. If the baddie must be unequivocally evil, he can also be very scary, and the unnamed white-haired man is all of that. And, being Fisher, she can still create surprises, as with the Giant Mutant Slugs… these monsters out of many a person's nightmare are first seen through the eyes of the protagonist Caz, who has every reason to react as she does to them, but when later we hear from a character who knows more about them… well, it would be wrong to get into spoiler territory.

Suffice it to say that this surely fulfils the remit; I can't imagine the child, reluctant reader or not, who wouldn't want to know "what happens next". When I reviewed this book's predecessor At the World's End, I hazarded a guess that there'd be a sequel, because everything seemed to point to Caz's journey not being complete. It is more so by the end of this one, but there is still a lot of narrative possibility in this ruined future world and when one of the characters says, near the end, "This is not over", I did wonder… At all events, it's great that these sort of books, by acclaimed authors, exist for children with reading problems and I'd certainly recommend them to anyone with such a child.