The more I learn about being an author, the more I realise how easy it is for even the most eager, dedicated readers to miss out on awesome books, not only due to their sheer number, but because of the difficulties involved in locating novels that have no local distribution in one’s country of residence. Teh Internets, long may they reign, have done wonders to ameliorate this problem, but unless one is told about a specific book or author located elsewhere, the issue becomes a question of publicity. The book blogger community is invaluable in this regard, but with the exception of those blogs dedicated primarily to romance/erotic novels, the emphasis tends to be on recent releases, debut authors and upcoming titles rather than mainstays of the genre. There are very good reasons for this, and I’m not complaining in the slightest. What I am trying to do, in a very roundabout way, is tell you about Jackie French.
If you lived in Australia in the 1990s and had anything to do with young adult literature, it is impossible not to have heard of Jackie French, with good reason. I can’t recall which was the first book of hers I ever read, but looking at publication dates, it seems likely that it was The Book of Unicorns, a gorgeous collection of short stories – some high fantasy, some urban fantasy – each of which features a different type of unicorn. A master of the form, French’s middle grade Phredde the Phaery series, starting with Stories to Eat With a Banana, are each a volume of sequential-yet-individual short stories featuring the same cast of characters. And then there’s Dancing With Ben Hall, a collection of interconnected tales all set in different periods in Australian history, many of them based on true events that happened to members of French’s family. While many of her novels are written in a similar vein, my favourite stories were always her fantasy offerings – particularly Tajore Arkle, a story set on another world with a connection to our own. In the opening lines, we see the protagonist, a girl called Anya, drawing a picture of last night’s dream for her friend, Zue: an eagle flying through the rain. On hearing this explanation, Zue laughs.
“What’s an eagle, Anya?” Zue asks. “What’s rain?”
The story that follows is by turns powerful, breathtaking, sweet and so imaginative that more than ten years after I first read it, it still gives me shivers to think about.
To my shame, it’s taken me until this year to finally get around to French’s vampire novel, In The Blood, the first volume of what is now a completed trilogy. Set in a desolate future Australia where small communities called Utopias eke out an existence outside the central city and where genetic modification has created centaurs and talking wombats alike, the story follows Danielle, a woman expelled from the city with secrets of her own, as she is forced to track down a killer.
And then there’s her book on writing for teenagers: How the Aliens from Alpha Centauri Invaded My Maths Class And Turned Me Into a Writer (And How You Can Be One Too), which volume I read and reread endlessly as part of my quest to become just that, and which, as a teenager, could not possibly have had a title better suited to attracting both my sympathy and attention.
Jackie French is an excellent writer in every possible respect. Her prose is beautiful, her storytelling and worldbuilding are superb, and she has a true knack for charaterisation. Writing well before the current boom in YA fantasy and paranormal storytelling, what strikes me now is how ahead of the curve she was – and has always been – in picking her material. A complaint I’ve heard not infrequently about the current crop of such stories is their sameness; or rather, the extent to which each subsequent work is inevitably gauged against those which preceeded it. Anyone feeling fatigued in this regard could do much worse than to invest in any of French’s books, which I guarantee to be original, brilliant and generally awesome – which is what you’d expect from someone who was winning awards and writing YA urban fantasy for more than a decade before it was a recognised, separate genre.
Moral of the story: if you’ve never heard of Jackie French, go out and remedy your ignorance forthwith.
And also, Merry Christmas!