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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Dave McKean

01/12/2009. Contributed by Tomas L. Martin

Buy The Graveyard Book in the USA - or Buy The Graveyard Book in the UK

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pub: Bloomsbury. 309 page small enlarged illustrated paperback. Price: 7.99. ISBN: 978-0-7475-9862-6.

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Neil Gaiman is one of the finest writers in fantasy out there and it was no surprise that he was nominated for and won the Hugo Best Novel Award in 2009 for 'The Graveyard Book'. Having already won the Hugo and Nebula awards for the sensational adult novel 'American Gods', adding a Hugo for this children's novel cements Gaiman's position as a speculative fiction heavyweight.

The start of the book is incredibly dark for a young person's novel, as a dark figure lurks through a family household with a blood-stained knife trying to kill all the inhabitants. The youngest child, a boy barely able to walk, is nowhere to be found, for he has wandered out of the house towards the village's old graveyard.

Here things take a turn for the strange as the killer 'Jack' finds himself unable to follow the child into the graveyard, stopped by unseen forces and Silas, a caretaker who seems able to bend Jack's thinking. Jack is shepherded away, leaving the child in the hands of the ghosts who inhabit the graveyard.

Old ghosts Mr and Mrs Owens take pity on the child, having had no children of their own whilst they were alive. A meeting of the ghosts is convened and they decide to raise the child as their own, with Silas going out to retrieve food for the boy and the others providing protection and teaching to the human amongst spirits.

We see the growth of young Nobody 'Bod' Owens, as the ghosts call him, from a small baby to a young rebellious teenager, eager to leave the confines of the graveyard to explore the wider world. The ghosts don't let him, however, fearful that Jack and others may well return to finish the deed.

But eventually they let him out to go to school, where Bod causes trouble by using the tricks he's learned from the ghosts on a pair of bullies. It catches the attention of Jack and his fellow 'Jacks Of All Trades', who fear they must destroy Bod if they are to survive.

Gaiman has a way of writing that evokes traditional fairy tale and myth. Even when the story itself is a completely original one, it feels like a classic ancient fable that has been passed around the campfire from generation to generation. This skill is incredibly difficult to achieve and makes reading a book like this one a pleasure.

The story is a never-ending stream of delightful little adventures and encounters, with every character rich and full of life. Bod's pains of growing up are just as realistic as if he were a normal boy, but with the added difficulties of life amongst the dead.

Personally, although I loved this book, I don't feel as passionately about it as I do 'American Gods', which I believe is one of the best books of the new millennium and I hope Gaiman returns to those more adult novels sometime soon. But 'The Graveyard Book' is still a wonderful experience.

Writing books for young adults is no longer the ghetto it used to be and it is interesting that the book that finished second in the Hugo ballot is also a book aimed at teenagers, Cory Doctorow's incredible 'Little Brother'. It is a sign of the broadening and maturing of the speculative fiction genres that such books can not only be enjoyable introductions to the genre for younger readers, but also engaging new classics for the adult enthusiasts.

'The Graveyard Book' gets its insights about the world, both living and dead, spot on. The reasons the Jacks are out to get Bod and his family are best left to the story to tell but the moral is extremely valid in today's world and brought across subtly. Like in many of his stories, Neil Gaiman introduces us to a delightful new world with the ease of a master storyteller, so that we don't notice just how strange a world he's led us into other than to wonder at it. It wasn't my favourite of this year's Hugo nominees but there's no doubting this book's credentials to be book of the year. A must read.

Tomas L. Martin

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