cover image Godhanger


Dick King-Smith, Richard King-Smith. Alfred A. Knopf, $17 (154pp) ISBN 978-0-517-80035-5

Far less accessible than King-Smith's animal-centered novels targeted at younger readers (Babe: The Gallant Pig; Harriet's Hare), this heavy-handed allegory set in hierarchical Godhanger Wood features the mighty bird, Skymaster, as a Christ figure. Skymaster attempts to protect his woodland brethren from the trigger-happy gamekeeper. From the start, the densely written narrative offers repeated, graphic descriptions of death, as when the man's spaniel retrieves the rabbit he has just shot (the author describes the hare's guts as ""a little festoon of warm innards whose coils still wriggled and slid uneasily""). Readers who move beyond a sequence of these violent scenarios come to the story's larger focus: Skymaster tells Loftus, the most trusted of his ""12 followers"" about his birth, which was followed by a visit from three birds carrying offerings and led by ""strange lights"" in the sky to locate the newly hatched fledgling. With the exception of Loftus, the development of this large cast of characters is superficial, and repeated shifts in viewpoint and in time frame from one paragraph to the next exacerbate the problem. Skymaster's sacrifice of his own life (""He died that I may live,"" says Eustace, the owl who ""disobeyed him"" and whom Skymaster swoops down to save) and fleeting reappearance to Loftus in an apparition are meant to signify rebirth (""Cuckoo! The spring is here!"" cries one bird). Yet with the absence of fully developed characters, most readers will be confused about what the mysterious bird means to the other inhabitants of Godhanger Wood and find this tale more upsetting than hopeful. Ages 12-up. (Feb.)