Alfie Bloom is just an ordinary boy. Until he receives a letter summoning him to raven-like solicitor Caspian Bone's office. Here, Alfie learns that he has inherited a castle. And through mysterious circumstances surrounding his birth, he has also been entrusted as the caretaker of a centuries-old magic. Unfortunately for Alfie, dangerous forces are after this powerful magic. With the help of his cousins Maddie and Robin, Artan the flying bearskin rug, and Ashford (a rather special butler), Alfie must keep the magic safe from terrifying adversaries and make sure the secrets of Hexbridge Castle stay secret for ever...
I first read Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Castle back in January. I had just come out of an event that Scholastic had held about their middle grade and picture book list for 2015, and there was one book that had my interest well and truly piqued above all the others. Everything I had been told about Gabrielle Kent's debut screamed "Read me" and so I started it on the train home. I was gripped by the magical adventure story, but I couldn't say that I truly loved it.
I give all of the books I read a star rating on Goodreads, as much as a personal record of my reading than for anything else, and I gave Alfie Bloom 4 stars. It just did not feel as good as other books I had rated 5 stars at that point, such as Abi Elphinstone's The Dreamsnatcher. When this 'starring' appeared on Twitter, I received a couple of tweets from the author, first for the 4 stars but also to say that the final version had undergone a fair few revisions since the proofs had been printed, including "Revelations moved around and I changed bits that didn't work". As you will no doubt of spotted, I have not been particularly active on this blog this year, and I never got around to posting a review before the book was published in June. However, as we broke up for the summer holidays and I was tidying away some books, I spotted that proof and decided that I would buy the final version for my kindle to take away on holiday with me. And this time I LOVED it! Definitely worthy of 5 Goodreads stars!
It's very rare that I find the time to re-read books these days, especially so soon after a first reading, but I am so glad that I gave Alfie Bloom another chance, as I was completely captivated this time around (and it also made a rather choppy Channel crossing a lot more pleasurable). I've not done a page by page comparison so I can't tell you exactly what had changed between the proof and final versions, but in my mind the final version had a plot that possessed perfect pace and flow.
Apart from being a damn fine storyteller, Gabrielle Kent is obviously a fellow lover of children's literature as Alfie Bloom contains elements that in some ways almost make it read as a homage to the great children's writers and books of the past, in the best possible way. The two headmistresses of the local Hexbridge school, the nemeses of every child who has had to be educated there, are incredibly Dahlesque in their nastiness and the punishments they dole out to their students might even have Dahl's Miss Trunchbull reporting them to Ofsted for cruelty to children. And this is just a starter - there are elements of Enid Blyton, E. Nesbit and Diana Wynne Jones in this story, particularly in the way Alfie interacts with his cousins, and their shared sense of adventure.
Following the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter books, there were a lot of similarly themed but far lesser books released as publishers looked to cash in. We then went through a period of (too many) years where it seemed that publishers felt that magic was no longer cool or marketable. Obviously enough time has now passed since Potter, and new adventure stories featuring magic are now appearing on book store shelves again. Recent notable and thoroughly enjoyable examples include Archie Greene and the Magician's Secret by D.D. Everest and Magisterium: The Iron Trial by Cassandra Clare and Holly Black. Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Hall is another, and in my opinion it is easily the best so far. It has shapeshifters, mythical creatures, time travel, ancient druidic magic, a rather splendid and mysterious butler, and the wonderful Hexbridge Castle itself - almost a character in its own right.
This is the first book in a series (I have no idea how many books are planned, but I really hope there are LOTS of them), and Gabrielle Kent very kindly does not leave us with a kind of cliffhanger ending. There are a small number of threads left untied which I am sure will be further explored in the sequel. There is one in particular that I am very keen to see how it is developed as there is a teacher at the school in Hexbridge who possesses a certain air of mystery. If my knowledge of traditional French & English fables is anything to go by (gained more on a 1970s Fairport Convention song than any in depth study of the subject) then I have a feeling that she has already played a bigger part in the story than some readers may have realised (and there's also that Wayne's World line: "In French, she would be called "la renarde" and she would be hunted with only her cunning to protect her".
I seem to be saying this a lot this year, but this is yet another book that richly deserves a place in my Top 10 books of 2015. I am starting to worry that I may have said this more than ten times though! It is middle grade fantasy adventure at its very best, and I can't wait to read the sequel.