Welcome to Victorian London; the home of the Artful Dodger, Sherlock Holmes...and Ben Kingdom, cocky street urchin - and the saviour of mankind. Unknown to mere mortals, an ancient battle is being waged across the city. Below the streets lurk the Legion, an evil gang of miscreants and criminals in league with the monstrous Feathered Men - determined to unleash Hell on the streets of London. Above the city's rooftops soar the Watchers, a ragtag band of orphans, mystics and spies, dedicated to protecting the vulnerable and guarding London against evil. Only Ben can put an end to this war - the only problem is, he doesn't know which side to choose.
Just over a week ago Andrew Beasley visited The Book Zone to tell us about his new series, The Battles of Ben Kingdom, as part of my 'Coming Up In 2013' feature. Thanks to the lovely people at Usborne, I had already been very fortunate to read the book by the time Andrew sent his piece through, and although the book isn't due to be published until 1st March, Usborne said they were more than happy for reviews to start being posted early. Rather fortunate for me, as I really want to shout about how much I enjoyed this book!
Long time readers of The Book Zone will know that as far as historical fiction is concerned I have a penchant for the Tudor, Restoration and Victorian eras. You will also know that I totally love urban fantasy stories set in London. And it should go without saying that I am a sucker for well-written Middle Grade adventure stories. As I read the publisher's blurb for The Claws of Evil, I already knew that it was ticking most of my 'must read' boxes, and I was not to be disappointed in the slightest.
A lot of urban fantasy stories set in our capital city seem to revolve around ancient battles, and The Claws of Evil is no different. Below the grimy, cobbled streets of Victorian London dwell the Legion, the villains of the piece. The book opens with a member of the Legion's Council of Seven confidently proclaiming that "London will soon be ours", and it would appear that each of the Council's members has a different plan for the city, now that the final piece of their greatest weapon could soon be in their grasp.
Living above the city, constantly on the move across the rooftops, never sleeping in the same place two nights in a row, live the Watchers. They are the light that fights against the Legion's dark, and have been London's protectors for time immemorial. They are constantly vigilant as they perch on the precarious, sloping roofs, equipped with skyboots designed to give them precious grip as they race across the rooftops. The Watchers also believe in an ancient prophecy that foretells of one who will some day defeat the Legion, although that same prophecy also makes mention of the cost that this person may have to pay.
Enter our protagonist, Ben Kingdom. Like me, you will already be guessing that he is the One, the hero of the Ancient Prophecy of the Watchers. Maybe he is, maybe he isn't, only time will tell. But he is a fantastic hero for this book - think the Artful Dodger, but with a moral compass. Ben only gets into trouble with the Law because he is a mischievous scallywag, and there is certainly never anything malicious about his actions. He lives in near-poverty conditions in the attic of a boarding house with his father and brother, and for reasons that become clear as the story progresses, he feels very little love from either of them. He is adventurous but naive, cocky and confident on the outside, but feeling unloved and lacking in self-belief on the inside. He is terrified of the so-called Weeping Man, a mysterious figure who is reported to be abducting the unwanted East End street kids, but digs deep to find extreme courage when he needs to. He is a character with which many 9+ readers will be able to identify.
As well as a great main character, in The Claws of Evil Andrew Beasley has created a host of colourful and exciting secondary characters, whether they be good or evil (or somewhere in between), human or mythological. Lucy Lambert, the scarfaced and fearless Watcher; Jago Moon, the blind man who sells Ben his much cherished Penny Dreadfuls; Professor James 'Claw' Carter, a man who thinks it is his destiny to rule the city, and is willing to work behind the backs of the Council to achieve his diabolical dream; Ruby Johnson, legionnaire and street thief, but could she be starting to see through the lies and depravity of her leaders? And there there is the Weeping Man himself, and opposites, the Feathered Men. Between them they add a soupçon of horror to the proceedings, that add to the sense of risk and adventure that encompass Ben as he is drawn into the ancient battle.
One of the stand out elements of the plot for me was Ben's confusion as to which side is good and which is evil. As I mentioned before, he is naive and quick to believe what he is told, especially if the teller is female and has a pretty face. His confusion is added to by the fact that some of the lead players in this ancient battle are people he has know for some years; people he has conversed with and trusted, leaving him with the ultimate dilemma - who should he trust? As such, readers will almost find themselves shouting "No, don't trust him, trust her", or vice versa. It is a story about choices, and how making the wrong one could lead to disaster for all.
I was lucky to be sent a proof copy of The Battles of Ben Kingdom: The Claws of Evil, but I have a feeling that I may also be going out and buying a finished copy when it is published, as I feel that it will be a rather attractive volume, with Usborne promising a decorative inside cover and and a customised hand-drawn map of London. 1st March isn't a huge amount of time to wait, and in the meantime you can read the book's prologue at http://www.usborne.com/readbenkingdom