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September 11, 2007

Buy the book, then buy the rights - Harry Phibbs is enthralled by Children of the Night, the children's science fiction novel by the Adam Smith Institute's Madsen Pirie: Children of the Night - Madsen Pirie

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Children of the Night
by Madsen Pirie
London: Arctic Fox Books, 2007
Hardback, 8.95

Madsen Pirie is well known in political and academic circles as founder of the phenomenally successful Adam Smith Institute, the free market think tank whose work on privatisation and other market reforms became influential not just in Britain but around the world.

This work continues but Pirie, in a manner befitting his intellectual restlessness, has developed an intriguing sideline. His new role is as a writer of children's science fiction books (apart from this one he has written Dark Visitor also available from Amazon).

It is a competitive market he has entered, which Pirie of all people can scarcely complain about. I don't read many children's science fiction books but I certainly found this one enthralling and wouldn't be at all surprised if it doesn't become a "slow burn" publishing success with sales accumulating through the tried and tested technique of word of mouth.

Pirie says in the acknowledgements:

Writers of fantasy and science fiction have more choices than more conventional writers. Their stories can be set on any world, a any time, and in any alternative reality. Despite this range of choices there is a strong tradition in fantasy to adopt the trappings of a medieval earth culture, complete with swords and daggers, furs and silks, sailing ships and horses. Children of the Night has those trappings, but belongs more to science fiction than to fantasy. Its events take place on an alternative earth, but one in which there is no magic, no fabled swords, and in which the dead stay dead. In this respect it is like science fiction wearing the clothes of fantasy.
The story begins in a monastery beset with fear by the murder of a lowly cook. The monks are muttering about what might happen next while toiling away over a huge roasting spit.

The dialogue and description are evocative and occasionally witty. But it is the tightly written story line that makes this an addictive page turner. Who are the Children of the Night? At first they are some sort of shadowy terrorist group whose motives are a puzzle, then we wonder if they really exist. The point is that one is very keen to find out.

Is Brother Sebastian a traitor? Again I wanted to know. Before doing so there is a fledgling romance with an undercurrent of class tension - lowly drudge boy cleaner meets glamorous girl pilot.

There is a weirdo element of a rat that can communicate telepathically and a mix of suspense, chases, capture, escape that develop from a Name of the Rose influence to more that of James Bond with an evil genius supervillain intent on world domination. The rat, who is named Quicksilver by the book's hero, is a gentle character who offers encouragement to Mark, an almost friendless orphan cathedral boy, at a time when morale is at a low ebb. Then as the story unfolds Quicksilver makes a crucial intervention in warning if someone is coming and whether their intentions are friendly or hostile.

I should declare an interest (as people writing book review usually don't) that Madsen Pirie is an old friend. Those who know Madsen will certainly recognise his character and values shining through on each page. But it would be misleading to suggest this as an ideological book suitable for converting a bright youngster from the errors of socialism. Madsen and his colleague at the Adam Smith Institute Eamonn Butler have each written several such books but this is not one of them. Nor does it carry great literary pretensions although there are
some powerful terms - those who toil to their death making energy units in the mines are called obliterati. No, the merit of this book is simply as a story.

Free marketeers have to make do with a passing swipe at the high taxes levied by the barons and the Church:

He thought of Erik Anderson and his settlement, crippled by taxes and tithes that turned what might have been a decent living into harsh survival.
A softer theme that comes through is the belief in the individual over the collective. Madsen doesn't suffer fools gladly. His scepticism of committee decision making comes through as a group of goodies decide what to do as the world is about to be blown up:
Suggestions came thick and fast, none of them useful. The group became increasingly desperate.
Madsen's contempt for snobbery is also well reflected in these pages as is his passion for an aspirational meritocracy as a youthful and lowly drudge beats the disdain and discouragement of his "betters" to shape his own destiny and make a positive and important impact on society.

The staccato style of writing made me think this would work well as a film. It reads like a screenplay at times. For instance twice in the book the girl flys off in a helicopter in the nick of time. The second time there is concern that it won't get away in time before the bomb explodes:

Calvin paused and then cried: "Weight."

"Can't wait," shouted back Gene. "Bomb about to explode."

"No, weight. Make it lighter..."

My tip is buy this book then buy the rights.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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