‘In the middle of the fourteenth century,’ begins C J Ward’s Death’s Daughter, ‘A merciless disease ravaged England. It ravaged and ravaged. And then, just for good measure, it ravaged a bit more.’ This disease is called the Black Death, for, as our storyteller acknowledges: ‘Its infamy would hardly have echoed through history had it been known as the Mauve Death. Or the Slightly Brown Death.’ In the face of this, Medieval medicine is useless – the physician would recommend ‘placing a hen next to you, which was supposed to coax the disease out of your body. This is not something hens are particularly good at. Clucking? Yes. Curing you of the plague? Not so much. If that failed (and it always did), she would usually tell you to drink your own urine.’
If you’re already sniggering, as I was, then this is the book for you. It tells the very story of how the shire of Lower Chegwin manages to escape death by plague, thanks to the local death-bringer, or Reaper – Roland – and Myla, a feisty nine-year-old unafraid of kicking a King in the shins or playing with rats. Roland kills people by tapping them three times on the shoulder and tapped Myla twice when she was a sickly baby, but couldn’t bring himself to give her the third tap when she smiled at him. Now she is a wraith – neither living or dead – and has been brought up as his daughter. But when her curiosity leads her to the Council of Reapers in the Great Forest, they are soon both in serious danger.
C J Ward shares my own delight in puns and playing with language. The whole book bursts with delightful details, such as the names of medieval shops (Tapestries‘R’Us, Axes and Wimples) or the increasingly surreal similes used to describe a character called Dim Peter (‘dim as a bag of prunes’, ‘dimmer than a squashed trifle’). Adults will enjoy the running joke about the preposterous names real ales have, as the knights sup pints of Hefty Ferret, Bishop’s Nostril and Crazy Otter. One part of the story is told via a pastiche of a ballad that begins:
King Death he was a nasty git,
Imagine the worst and he was it,
Like getting seventy-seven zits
On your first day back at school.
But aside from the jokes, this is also a genuinely moving story about a father and daughter – the end made me a little teary. And there are some scary moments along the way – I thought the forest demon called the Mandrake particularly chilling, with his algae green eyes, and body encased in moss and woodlice.
It’s always hard to judge when children are ready for a book like this. As you’ll have gathered by now there is a lot of death in this novel (just within the first chapter a man has been crushed to death by a cow), and lots of icky bits. It’s all done in a very comic-book way, but I know from my own experience of writing darkly comic books for children that some ten-year-olds will absolutely love this and others find it a bit too scary. If you’re buying it for a young reader and aren’t sure I’d read the sample online first – the first chapter gives the general flavour. However, I know that when I was a child – as a fan of Roald Dahl and Blackadder – I would have absolutely loved this book, with its brave heroine and sarcastic narrator. And, as an adult, it’s the best indie children’s book I’ve read this year.
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