Alfie Bloom and the Secrets of Hexbridge Castle, by Gabrielle Kent
My Sunday best this week, before I vanish for the rest of August, is the first in a fantasy series following the adventures of ‘ordinary boy’ Alfie Bloom, who’s just manifested a startling ability – and come into an unexpected inheritance.
When Alfie finds himself the possessor of Hexbridge, the mysterious castle of the title, he's delighted to explore the sprawling reaches of his new domain, meet its unusual butler, Ashford, and have the chance to spend more time with his favourite cousins, Hexbridge locals Maddie and Robin. But there's more to Alfie’s new surroundings than mere bricks and mortar; more even than the highly unusual bearskin rug, Artan, who can speak – and fly. Alfie now finds himself custodian not just of the castle, but of a centuries-old druidic magic. And his new headmistresses Murkle and Snitch, unamiable characters with a creative, Trunchbull-esque line in punishments, seem unnervingly interested in both…
With its young protagonist, magical inheritance and secret-riddled, ancient environment, 'Alfie Bloom' has plenty in common with both Harry Potter and Skulduggery Pleasant. But it’s more unquestionably aimed at 8-12-year-old readers than both of these brilliant series, which, as they become progressively more challenging and bloody, tend to nudge their way over into 'teen' territory. And I think it’s a splendid addition to the MG fantasy canon, in part because of this. In her assured debut, Gabrielle Kent satisfies the young reader's craving for superhuman capabilities and endless explorable space without penetrating too deeply into the darker realms of what they might involve - instead, there's more emphasis here on joyous wish-fulfilment, and, in particular, the uncomplicated delight of sharing windfall wealth and power with your best friends. With elements of Blyton, Dahl and Nesbit in the mix, a thoroughly likeable and decent protagonist, a well-realised and enticing world, and a satisfying, meaty story with the sense of more to come, this series should get a lot of kids happily hooked, and agog for the second to appear.