EVERY NOW and again, in children's literature, a novel both unfashionably long and uncompromisingly literary turns into an unexpected bestseller. One such was Richard Adams's Watership Down; another could well be Peter Dickinson's 632-page The Kin (Macmillan, pounds 14.99). It describes the adventures of four children living in Africa 200,000 years ago before hunter-gatherers settled down into agrarian communities.
The children have their own language and mythology, outlined in a series of separate parables interleaved with the main events and linked to the lives of the protagonists. Other tribes they encounter have no spoken words at all. Their story is both tough and tender; bloody battles are resolved through compassion and forgiveness.
At a time when visions of the future in children's literature are uniformly bleak, looking to the past for hope about the human condition could at least provide the young with some sense of balance. Although Dickinson has already won many prizes, this book is one of his finest achievements yet. Catherine Fisher's futuristic fantasy The Relic Master (Bodley Head, pounds 10.99) also succeeds brilliantly. Avoiding video-game set pieces, she creates a believable world which also serves as an allegory for the dangers of political oppression accompanied by environmental devastation. This sounds a somewhat over-toxic mix, but the journey to the forbidden city of Tasceron taken by the adolescent boy and girl, backed up by a sour older figure, has the immemorial appeal of a quest story written by an author firing on all cylinders. The first of a promised sequence, this book is a worthy successor to the same writer's excellent Snow-Walker trilogy. Rhiannon Lassiter wrote Hex (Macmillan, pounds 9.99) when she was 17. It too deals with fantasy, this time describing 23rd-century London as an unpleasant place, jutting five miles in the sky and ruled by an evil oligarchy. Its only challenge comes from those few citizens born with special powers to gain access to all computer systems - an apt symbol for children today, often bewilderingly far ahead of their parents in information technology. The author occasionally shows some immaturity. Male characters have "rugged good looks" and girls "shake out their luxuriant chestnut curls". …