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Tomorrow's Guardian
Richard Denning
Mercia Books, 296 pages

Tomorrow's Guardian
Richard Denning
Richard Denning was born in Ilkeston in Derbyshire and lives with his family in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands. He works as a General Practitioner with a North Birmingham practice.

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A review by Seamus Sweeney

There are stories which seem to belong in a certain medium. Think how many outstanding novels become turgid movies, how many trashy books become great films. Opera, perhaps, is the one art form that can adapt Shakespeare on something like equal terms. Perhaps it is the fact I read one of the Blake and Mortimer adventures of Edgar P. Jacobs (The Francis Blake Affair, specifically, which I know purists will tell me isn't the work of Edgar P. Jacobs) just before writing this review, but I couldn't help thinking the Tomorrow's Guardian's natural form would be as a Tintin/Blake and Mortimer style adventuresome graphic novel (the French phrase la bande dessinée is much more evocative) rather than as a novel.

Richard Denning has written a rather endearing time travel tale for younger readers, one covering a wide range of settings and historical periods. There is something charming and old-fashioned about the plot and characterisation. "Old-fashioned" may seem a pejorative term, but when it comes to the adventure story it is (usually) the operative term. Stevenson wrote somewhere that was most important in writing a scene of action was a simple, direct, descriptive style. Adventure stories do not depend on a wealth of florid descriptions or on stylistic disruptions for their effect; the laconic mode is the mode of the adventure.

Eleven-year-old Tom is a rather ordinary English schoolboy, who fears bullies and enjoys games. He begins to experience unusual déjà-vu episodes -- some of which are genuinely terrifying experiences of impending violent death; his parents bring him to a family doctor and then a psychologist. It seems that perhaps growing pains are taking their toll. But things don't add up, in true hero-with-hidden-special-powers-story fashion, and then, he encounters an adventurer Septimus Mason, who shows him that he is a "Walker" -- a person who can transport himself to other times and places. Septimus explains that these powers can be easily renounced, which given the distress and bother Tom is experiencing, seems like a good idea.

And as always in hero-with-hidden-special-powers stories, it isn't that simple. Tom has experienced the lives of others in great mortal danger. He has been at the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, about to be killed by the massive Zulu army; he has been Mary Brown, consumed by flames in the Great Fire of London, 1666; and he has experienced what it is like to be about to die by drowning as a British seaman during World War II. A wide range of adventuresome settings and situations that are almost crying out for the treatment of the linge claire drawing style of the Belgian pole of bandes dessinées culture.

Reluctantly, he agrees to travel back in time and rescue them. And it turns out, of course, that Tom and Septimus are not the only Walkers; indeed there is both an establishment organisation devoted to the responsible use of the ability for meliorist purposes, and a sinister agency devoted to using it for amassing power and wealth. The "technicalities" of the time travel scenes are elided over -- time travel is a trait of a select group, and is largely a matter of conscious visualisation for them. I can't help feeling that this would work somewhat better in graphic novel form than on the printed page, although this is not a major barrier to enjoying the book.

Like so many young heroes of adventure, Tom is a rather lonely boy, initially baffled by the odd events that are happening. It is always challenging for an adult reviewer to adequately evaluate a book intended for a younger readership. The only thing to do is to try and imagine back to the world of one's own childhood (always, after all, not that terribly far beneath our 'mature' surface) and wonder if it would engage one's younger self. My judgement on Tomorrow's Guardian is that it does pass this test. There is something winningly ordinary and decent about Tom. Denning does not fall into either trap of over-sophistication or over-sentimentalisation, or trying to be self-consciously cool or down with the kids. This ordinariness is a great strength. This book is at times rather ploddingly written and will not change the face of books, whether children's or time-travel literature, but it will beguile a young mind for some hours. Perhaps Denning will find a Hergé or a Bob de Moor or a Jacobs and we could see a new generation of Anglo-French or Anglo-Belgian bandes dessinées.

Copyright © 2011 Seamus Sweeney

Seamus Sweeney is a freelance writer and medical graduate from Ireland. He has written stories and other pieces for the website and other publications. He is the winner of the 2010 Molly Keane Prize. He has also written academic articles as Seamus Mac Suibhne.

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