Geraldine McCaughrean,
The Stones are Hatching
(Oxford University Press, 1999;
HarperCollins Children's Books, 2000)

Geraldine McCaughrean brings her vast knowledge of folklore and mythology to the fore in her new novel The Stones are Hatching.

It is August 1919, and World War I is over. Young Phelim Green lives with his older sister Prudence; his mother died when he was small and his father is simply gone -- where, Phelim doesn't know. Due to his sister's constant disparagement, Phelim is reserved and quiet, lacking in self-esteem. He gets through each day as he can, trying desperately to stay out of Prudence's way and be useful but still possessed of a sense of whimsy and magic which prompts him to do such things as leave a dish of milk each night for an imaginary cat. Since the bowl is empty each morning, Phelim assumes that his cat is a ghost cat, and that ghost cats get as hungry as any other cat.

One morning, he comes into the kitchen and finds his whole world turned upside down. The room is a wreck, the stove pulled away from the wall, and it is filled with strange small people. These are glashans, or so the creature who calls himself Domovoy informs Phelim, and they take care of the fields as he, Domovoy, takes care of the house. As it happens, Phelim has been unintentionally feeding Domovoy with his nightly dish of milk, and now Domovoy has a job for him.

Calling Phelim Jack o'Green, Domovoy tells him that the guns of World War I have awakened the Stoor Worm, and her Hatchlings are breaking out of the stones she keeps in her mouth. The Hatchlings are all the creatures out of folklore: the Black Dog, the Drac, nuckalevees and boobries and more and they are overrunning the countryside. Phelim's task is to prevent the Worm from waking, however it is to be done.

Phelim's response is one of denial: he couldn't possibly be the person Domovoy thinks he is. But he is thrust out of his house with a few tokens in his pocket, instructed to find a Fool, a Maiden and a Horse, and get going on his quest.

Phelim finds his Fool, a mad relic from the Napoleonic Wars named Sweeney who refuses to let his feet touch the ground and leaps from branch to branch of the trees in the forest. His Maiden is Alexia, a girl his age who has trained as a witch and lacks a shadow, and the Horse is the strange Obby Oss. The four make their way to the Stoor Worm, encountering Hatchlings and their attendant devastation, witnessing the impact of the Worm on the people they meet. The old magic and old ways run close to the surface in the villages, and it doesn't take much to revive them.

Phelim comes of age, finally accepting the role thrust on him and breaking away from the hideous grip his sister holds on him. Indeed, when the reader finally encounters Prudence, she seems worse than one of the Hatchlings. His path is uncompromising, as death dogs him in the form of the Washer-at-the-Ford, adults believed to be sources of help turn out to be weak and foolish, and his own stubborn pride leads to harm. Only when he gives himself over to the magic is he effective.

This is a spell-binding book, lyrically written with passages of breathtaking imagery and poetry. McCaughrean's handling of the folkloric elements is deft and chilling, edged with dark and mystery. Phee and Alexia come into their own, and Phee finds strength in the magic in his blood.

If you enjoy writers such as Philip Pullman, Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, get your hands on Geraldine McCaughrean's The Stones are Hatching right away. Tell them Domovoy sent you.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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