The Children of Castle Rock

The Children of Castle Rock was written by Natasha Farrant and first published in 2018. It is an adventure story aimed at middle grade readers, focusing on a young girl’s adventures at boarding school. The novel stands alone, so you don’t have to have read any of the author’s other work to fully appreciate it.

Alice has become increasingly withdrawn since the tragic death of her mother. While she was once adventurous, now she just sits in her room and spends all of her time writing stories. When her family is forced to move from their beautiful home, Alice is devastated and her father and aunt worry about her isolating herself further. In an attempt to help her to find herself, they enrol her at Stormy Loch, a remote Scottish boarding school that is known for taking in wayward souls.

Although Alice feels abandoned, she quickly finds that Stormy Loch is not what she expected. Teachers encourage children to discover their talents and regular “Challenges” are a way of life. The school also doesn’t believe in punishments, though sometimes the consequences for failing the Challenges aren’t much better than these. It’s not long before Alice starts to enjoy herself and gradually starts to make friends with Fergus, a genius with a habit of getting into trouble.

When the school holds an open day, Alice is eager to show her father how great Stormy Loch is. However, he she is disappointed when he does not turn up. Later that day, Alice receives a strange parcel and a note telling her to deliver it to her father on an uninhabited Scottish island. Alice and Fergus soon hatch a plan to enable her to get there in time. However, carrying it out will require the map reading skills of their classmate, Jesse. And there is no way that Jesse will break the school rules knowingly…

The Children of Castle Rock is a wholesome adventure story that neatly captures the style of Enid Blyton, though translates it to a modern setting. However, in writing this review I did notice something a little odd about the way this book was advertised. I am reviewing this book based on an advance copy that I was sent by the publisher and perhaps this is why the blurb on Amazon bears little resemblance to what I just read. Please bear in mind when reading this review that it may not be a fair representation of the published work.

While the book wasn’t a bad read by any means, I do have some mixed feelings towards it. The setting of Stormy Loch will certainly appeal to all fans of the Harry Potter series. It is a boarding school housed in an old Scottish castle, framed by an almost fantastical setting of misty hills and a loch that seems to change colour to fit Alice’s moods. It’s almost a character in its own right, possessing restorative qualities and capable of instilling a sense of adventure in everyone who goes there.

Unfortunately, we don’t really spend a lot of time at the school. While the start of the story exposits a lot about its ethos of encouraging the talents of its students and its culture of challenges and consequences, we don’t see a lot of either in the story. Stormy Loch is such an evocative setting that it really could have been the focus of the entire novel. I personally felt that it was really a shame that we didn’t get to see much of it at all.

In terms of plot, the story was a bit of a slow-burner but I am pleased to say that I never felt bored while reading it. It was well over half-way through the story when the main adventure began, and things only really started to feel exciting around fifty pages before the end. If you’re a fan of fast-paced adventure stories, this probably isn’t the novel for you. Really, most of the book is build-up that makes the reader want to read on to find out what is in Alice’s mysterious package. This is something that I felt the novel actually did handle pretty well. While an eagle-eyed reader can guess what its contents really are, the eventual reveal is very satisfying and Barney’s reason for sending it to Alice makes for a decent twist.

However, I wasn’t a huge fan of the way in which the story was told. This is a purely a personal gripe, as there was nothing technically wrong with the story, but I really didn’t like the omniscient narrator. This isn’t something that you come across that often these days, as second person narratives are actually pretty hard to do well. This was certainly an issue here, as it just made the book feel a bit exposition heavy. It constantly told the reader what was happening and what the various protagonists were feeling in a way that just felt clumsy. One of my pet peeves is when writers constantly tell things to the reader rather than showing them through a character’s actions, and The Children of Castle Rock really fell foul of this.

However, the strongest aspect of the novel was its characters. Alice, Fergus and Jesse all talk and behave like real children. This may seem like an odd thing to praise, but it’s something that writers seem to have a real hard time getting right. They sometimes behave spontaneously, fall out over the smallest things, and easily become jealous of each other. While none of them are perfect, they are slowly drawn together by their experiences and become firm friends. The way that this gradually developed over the course of the story, despite many setbacks, was my absolute favourite aspect of the novel. All three of the children have their baggage, yet gradually learn to overcome this as they learn to trust each other.

It’s also a story about growing up, as the story shows how the protagonists’ relationships with adults gradually changes as they come to learn that adults (especially their parents) are also flawed individuals. That said, the adults in the story did seem to be less fleshed out than the children. The Major remains a bit of an enigma, serving as the Dumbledore-esque headmaster of the school, yet revealing very little about himself. Similarly, the other teachers are a bit interchangeable and I found it hard to remember which teacher taught what.

Yet the most disappointing character of all was Barney – Alice’s father. I can’t really say a lot here without spoiling the novel, but I will just say he’s not what he seems. While Alice loves her father and believes that he is an aspiring actor, she learns in the climax that she perhaps does not understand Barney very well at all. While this twist came as a bit of a surprise (I must admit that I thought things were going to play out very differently), it just seemed to peter out over the climax. Barney doesn’t get any sort of catharsis and just kind of wanders out of the plot, leaving his eventual fate unknown.

Anyhow, I think I’ve probably rambled on for long enough. While I didn’t dislike The Children of Castle Rock, I didn’t find it all that memorable either. The narrative voice felt clumsy and the story was very slow to find its feet. If you’re a fan of Enid Blyton stories, you might get a kick out of it. However, if you prefer your adventure stories to be a bit more action-packed, I’d suggest giving it a miss.

The Children of Castle Rock can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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