The Cockatrice Boys
by Joan Aiken
From the Wolves
featuring Dido Twite, I had already come to regard Joan Aiken as a wonderful writer with a flair
for colloquial British speech, humor, adventure, and the clash of titanic forces of good and evil.
From Diana Wynne Jones'
I had come to regard the Starscape
series (penned by a variety of authors)
as being possibly the best-kept secret in young-adult fiction. Both of these impressions are
confirmed by The Cockatrice Boys
, a Starscape
book by the daughter of American poet
Conrad Aiken. Besides being a daringly original, funny, scary, and morally instructive book, it
also contains one of the strongest statements of the purpose of fantasy stories and fairy tales:
"People need stories...to remind them that reality is not only what we can see or smell or touch.
Reality is in as many layers as the globe we live on itself, going inwards to a central core of
red-hot mystery, and outwards to unguessable space. People's minds need detaching, every now and
then, from the plain necessities of daily life. People need to be reminded of these other
dimensions above us and below us. Stories do that."
This story is about an invasion of monsters that brings civilization in Great Britain crashing
down. These creatures, of unknown origin, come in many varieties from bycorns, footmonsters,
kelpies, and trolls to snarks, gorgons, basilisks and telepods--this is only a partial listing,
mind you. Nevertheless, they are grouped under the general term of Cockatrices, and it is to
battle the Cockatrices that the Cockatrice Corps is formed. Armed with snark masks, kelpie
knives and ray guns, they set out on the stellar-powered armored train Cockatrice Belle
to battle the beasties and bring needed supplies to the scattered remnants of the British race.
Among the brave members of the crew is a young drummer-boy named Dakin, who finds his future-
seeing cousin Sauna being held prisoner by a wicked old aunt in Manchester. This pair, together
with a German-speaking dog (!) named Uli, become critical to the mission. For not only man-eating
monsters are abroad; there are also traitors, witches, and foul powers of darkness at work,
gathering their powers for a diabolical purpose to be revealed on King Edward's Day. It has
something to do with a text penned by a medieval astrologer; and again something to do with two
dolls that have a pin stuck through them; and again something to do with the cosmic battle
between good and evil that even the Archbishop of Lincoln is hard-put to explain.
I've already said what I think of this book, but I want to add two more things. First, I really
enjoyed the cover art by Gris Grimly. And second, I'm going to seek out other Starscape
books, whose authors include some of the biggest names in sci-fi and fantasy, and whose titles
look quite interesting!
Recommended Age: 12+
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