The Shadow Hunt, by Katherine Langrish (HarperCollins, 2010, middle grade/YA, 329 pages in ARC form) Published as Dark Angels in the UK.
In a medieval world with ghosts and angels and friendly Hobs by the fire, where Christianity sits alongside older magic, two brave children try to save themselves, and those they love, from being lost in the hollow hills of Elfland.
As the 12th century draws to a close on the boarder of Wales, a boy named Wolf is on the run from the oppressive monastery where his father had left him as a child. High on the rocky escarpment known as the Devil's Edge, he finds himself in the path of Lord Hugo's wild hunt. But the wolves that Lord Hugo thinks are the quarry aren't running alone--caught up in the chase is a little girl, a feral child whose face is marked with a red stain.
Unwittingly Wolf leads Hugo to the cave where the girl has been living, and Hugo, desperate to find a way into Elfland, where he thinks his dead lady has been taken, decides the child is herself an elf. If she can be taught to speak, she can show him the way inside the mountain....And he chooses Wolf, who found her, to be her teacher.
Now Wolf and Elfgift, as the girl is called, have a home in Hugo's castle. There his daughter, Nest, waits to be married off at Christmas, already chaffing at the bars of the approaching cage. Nest and Wolf become allies as the winter draws in, and win the trust of Elfgift. But All Hallows Eve brings with it a mysterious jongleur, a travelling entertainer named Halewyn. Halewyn proves a true Lord of Misrule, feeding Hugo's obsession with his lost wife, and stirring up other, even darker, things that are better left alone....it is up to Wolf, with Nest's help, to save Elfgift from Hugo's mad scheme to take her back to Elfland, and it is up to Nest to save herself from an unhappy marriage.
Langrish has done a marvellous job here of blending fantasy with historical fiction, and that, combined with her skillful characterization of Wolf and Nest, makes for very good reading indeed. The story gains momentum gradually--true excitement doesn't come till near the end, and the reader has to exercise patience and trust. That being said, the subtle build-up of tension is enlivened not just by the compelling characters, but by the details woven into this tapestry of life in a haunted medieval castle--haunted both by memories of the dead, and by an actual ghost.
Langrish's portrayal of Christianity is nuanced and varied--on the one hand, there is the deeply sincere priest of Hugo's castle, living with his loving and caring wife; on the other is the narrow-minded self-righteous dogma of Brother Thomas, chaplin of Nest's betrothed. There are angels in this book, alongside the Wild Hunt--a juxtaposition that is almost certainly closer to the medieval worldview than an either/or mindset.
In short, highly recommended in particular to fans of both Rosemary Sutcliff (best ever historical fiction writer for children) and fantasy, and more generally to those who enjoy young characters bravely searching for their place in the world, those who love medieval castles, and those fascinated by the dangers inherent in Elfland.
Note on age: The main characters are in their early teens, and I think the ideal reader would be around 11 or 12 on up; there's no specifically YA-ish content, and no graphic violence, but younger children might not connect with the aspects of the plot that deal with Nest's arranged marriage and Lord Hugo's obsessions. And older readers should not be deterred by the very middle grade looking cover! The UK cover, shown at right, looks like it's aimed slightly older.
Here are Colleen's thoughts, at Chasing Ray (scroll down), a review at The Bookbag, and an interview at Imagination in Focus where Langrish discusses the book.
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)