Chronicles of the Red King: The Secret Kingdom, by Jenny Nimmo (Scholastic, 2011, middle grade, 224 pages)
Long ago, in a secret kingdom in Sub-Saharan Africa, a baby boy named Timoken was given wondrous gifts by a forest jinni--a cloak of moon spider silk to give him magical powers, and a vial of the water of life--and his sister was given a magical ring. But when Timoken was still a boy, evil viridees, deadly spirits from the forest, came hunting for the gifts, and overran his peaceful land. Timoken and his sister were the only survivors, escaping by flying away into the night....
Now Timoken and his sister are wanderers. Joined by a camel, also alone in the world, they search for a place that they can call home. But as they fly over Africa, and beyond, the viridees pursue them....and Timoken's sister is lost to him. Timoken and the camel travel on, and at last meet an unlikely band of allies--children captured from Europe to be sold as slaves. To bring these children home again, and to find a home for himself, Timoken must draw on all his powers and confront the viridees head on.
This story is a prequel to Nimmo's Charlie Bone series--Timoken will grow up to become the Red King of legend, Charlie's ancestor. But it is not at all necessary to have read those books first. The Secret Kingdom stands on its own, although Charlie Bone makes cameo appearances.
This book has an old fashioned, fairytale feel to it, quite different from the Charlie Bone books (which might disconcert, and even disappoint, fans of that series). The story is unfolded slowly, and is told in somewhat formal language. There's a sense of things described rather than intensely lived, and a slight distance from the thoughts and feelings of the characters. I'd suggest reading this before the Charlie Bone books--it seems to me more suited for younger readers who want a linear story-line, where event follows event in (more or less) unbroken flow.
That being said, this isn't a passive story in which nothing much happens. There is action, some of it violent; once Timoken meets up with the other children, the pace quickens, and dangers are more immediate. People are killed, but not gruesomely. Three magical leopard cubs somewhat randomly, but not unpleasantly so, add to the excitement.
But it is the fairytale images of Timoken, innocent and brave, and Gabar the camel, grumpy but loyal, flying over the world, always in danger, never at home, that stick in my mind. Although I can easily imagine young readers enjoying this on their own, I think it would make a particularly lovely book to read out loud--it's easy to imagine the eight year old child asking eagerly for more...
"Spring came, and the boy and the camel moved on. Sometimes they would stay on the edge of the same village for almost a year, and sometimes they moved on, swiftly. They flew over a sea that Gabar thought would never end. They soared over mountains so high that the camel's hair froze into rigid tufts of ice, and Timoken thought his cold nose would drop off. But still the ring urged them on. "Not safe, yet," it would whisper." (page 95)
I was a tad disappointed that the fantasy elements didn't have more of a Sub-Saharan African feel; it seemed like a missed opportunity. But on the other hand, it a refreshing change to see an African boy becoming a hero king with magical powers, and shown as such on the cover!