Illustrated by Paddy Donnelly
For ages 9+
Huge welcome to everyone reading this who found me today via the Walker Books Blog Tour! Lovely to see you! This is such a super wonderful middle grade fiction book for kids, I'm so happy to share it with you all.
I've got to say, I rather loved this witchy, magical, eco-warrior-style story. It's got to be said that right now trying to deal with the planet's major issues head on is quite scary for even for us adults. Learning about key eco-threats and the effect they have on the nature around us through exciting and accessible fiction is vital for children who perhaps might be less aware, engaged or 'bothered'. I must admit that I've found the topic of gas fracking a bit confusing up until now! Thanks to this story, I'm much more savvy.
Although this is book 2 in C.J. Haslam's adventure series about 13 year old Orla, her brothers and Dave (more about him later), there's absolutely no requirement to have read book 1. I haven't, yet, and it wasn't an issue at all.
About the story
Three children and Dave are heading up to Norfolk via train to stay for the holidays with an elderly Great-Uncle. It's doesn't seem to be the number 1 choice for Orla's older brother Richard, nor her younger brother Tom, but presented with the choice of a cushty holiday getting spoilt by Gran or heading out to the wilderness for an adventure into the unknown, Orla opted for the latter. Dave might be getting on in years, but his tactical combat skills and battlefield mindset are on par with any special forces soldier's... oh, and he's a Jack Russell who's part cat due to consuming a survival rescue potion on his previous adventure with Orla and the gang. We're off to a great start!
Haslam has captured both the beauty of the landscape and the harsh living conditions for those on the marshes of Norfolk. The cold winds, the mesh of dykes and perilous tides. Uncle Valentine lives very remotely in Sicow's Creek ...endearingly referred to by Richard as 'Psycho's Creek'...(no Wi-Fi even) and simply, fishing for mussels and being fairly self-sufficient. It seems a lonely life for such an elderly, but spritely chap. The children soon forget their obsession for digital entertainment and get to living in the moment. Orla isn't terribly impressed with her Uncle's constant gender-stereotyping: the pink bedspread, the sickly sweet book for girls placed by the bed, the assumptions that she'll be doing the cooking etc. Strong-minded and strong-willed, she soon sets everything straight.
At bedtime on the first night, horrible glaring lights across the marsh, polluting the sky, can be seen from miles around. Orla learns that a company called GasFrac plans to bulldoze Anna's Wood - an ancient local woodland, some 3,000 years old - extract shale gas, then cement over it with a new shopping centre and car park! Not only is Orla incensed by this, as a new-found witch, she's keen to find out whether there's any 'sprowl' (the power of the land, or vital spirit force of nature) that she can collect with her gwelen (a heavy staff of sacred wood).
Once she's managed to pass all the GasFrac security measures, there she finds a one-footed magpie in a trap. Once freed, the magpie stabs her cheek and flys off! She finds out that in folklore this is known as a 'magpie's kiss', which gives one a vision of the future. That night Orla has a vision about GasFrac, the wood and the birds. She sees all sorts of signs that indicate that all is not what it might appear, and if this warning is not heeded then the local wildlife could meet a tragic end.
Orla meets a cast of quirky local residents - from a postmistress showing all the signs of being a witch to a cottage garden social media influencer. What's odd and significant is that the villagers all seem to be pro GasFrac, and any previous attempts at protest have been peacefully overcome. It all just doesn't add up! Time to call in reinforcements... enter Raven from book 1, Orla's bestie goth friend from her adventure in Cornwall, now dressed in 1970s attire and going by her 'undercover' name Misty. With Misty's genius common sense and Orla's witchcraft, the boys on the team and Dave as head of security, they all set to work to unravel this mystery. Not just relying on magic, the children print and put up posters, they examine the land surveys and do as much research as they can on GasFrac.
There's a hint of Dan Brown-esque thriller towards the conclusion of this eco-folklore adventure, so prepare yourself for dark magic and a dangerous secret ancient orders of magicians. With chants, potions, spells, and sprowl in her arsenal, Orla and her gang are going to do everything in their power to expose GasFrac's true plans to the locals and authorities before it's too late!
Haslam has created a loveable and gutsy character in Orla. She might well be the hero eco-warrior of the story, but without her brothers, Misty, Dave and others around her, she would surely have failed. The story demonstrates the highs and lows of working as a team, whilst celebrating and respecting each person's individual skillset, especially Dave's frequent and handy pungent chemical attacks, tee hee.
Find out more about fracking:
About the creators
C.J. Haslam (author)
C. J. Haslam is the award-winning Chief Travel Writer at The Sunday Times, specialising in extreme adventure. He appears regularly on the BBC and has written three black comedy thrillers for adults. One of them, Twelve Step Fandango, was shortlisted for the Edgar Allan Poe award. Orla and the Serpent's Curse was Chris' first book for children. He lives in Cambridge with the real Dave the dog.
Paddy Donnelly (illustrator)
Paddy Donnelly is an Irish author & illustrator living in Belgium. He grew up on the north coast of Ireland, surrounded by mythical stories of giants, magical creatures, and shape-shifting animals--all set in a stunning landscape from another time. All of this prompted his love for nature, animals, the sea, and storytelling. He creates his illustrations digitally, but loves working with a textured, painterly approach.
Grab a copy
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Publication date: 7 April 2022
'Orla and the Serpents Curse' (2020)
*Walker Books provided me with a review copy of 'Orla and the Magpie's Kiss'.
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