Song for a Scarlet Runner, by Julie Hunt (Allen & Unwin, May 2015), is an award-winning Australian import* published here in the US this spring. It's also the type of book that is the reason why I went with "Timeslip Tuesday" instead of "Time travel Tuesday"--characters slip out of and back into ordinary time, but don't actually time travel as it's normally done.
When the story begins, Peat has no idea that she's about to have adventures of any sort. Her life has been lived in isolation out in the middle--just her, her big sister, some cows, and an aunt who visits periodically to pick up the cheeses they've made and take them back to the hamlet at the end of a dead end canyon a longish walk away. But then a stranger arrives, and Peat tells him where the hamlet is, and when he unwittingly brings sickness there, Peat is blamed. Peat flees off into the badlands, and suddenly her world becomes a much larger, more interesting place than she had ever dreamed off.
And she doesn't travel alone--an extremely appealing animal companion that she calls a Sleek, but some call a scarlet runner (sort of a cross between fox and cat) joins her (intermittently), and I defy any animal loving reader not to want a sleek friend of their own!
Peat's path takes her into the marshlands, where Marsh Aunties, magic using women, vie to take her on as an apprentice. It is Marsh Auntie who's the storyteller and healer who finds her first, and Peat begins to learn stories...including one in which a warrior promised the life of his unborn son to the mysterious Siltsifter to ensure his own safety.....
And then, as the story twists, Peat herself is taken out of the real world and out of time by that very Siltsifter and finds the stories are true. In the Siltsifter's empty land, she meets a lonely boy and his ghost dog who were captured by the Siltsifter centuries ago. Unless they give in to an endless existence of sifting silt for their master, they must somehow manage to escape. Fortunately, her Sleek friend finds her (thanks to Siltboy), which helps, and other magical and human helpers come to the aid of the two children, bringing them to a happy ending in which Peat is reunited with her big sister, which was what she really wanted all along.
If you are tired of Spunky heroines who win through their magical adventures by being just as strong and courageous as stereotypical boy heroes, this one will make a very nice change! Peat is certainly a spunky 11 year old (I would have dissolved into tears a heck of a lot more than she does), and she never gives up hope, and she does have a sensitivity to possibility that lets her see things others don't, but she's still a young girl just trying to get through an adventure she never wanted or expected. The story is slow to become fully magical, though by the end there is magic aplenty, and so it's a kind of unfrentically peacefully progressing journey, rather than a gallopy questy type fantasy.
I do wish that there had been more explanation of the Siltsifter (if there was a reason given for his silt-sifting fetish, it escaped me). He seemed something of a cardboard villain, though a spooky and sinister one, and this disappointed me a bit.
But do try this one if you like middle grade fantasies that really transport you to another place, that let the story absorb you into that world and make crystal clear pictures in your mind. The sleek is a lovely snarky animal companion, and the book is almost worth reading just for his sake! The ghost dog is also a lovely animal companion, though not snarky....
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher
*Shortlisted, Best Children’s Book category, Aurealis Awards, 2013
Shortlisted, Younger Readers category, Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards, 2014
Winner, Inaugural 2014 Readings Children’s Book Prize, 2014