Oxford, 1929. The Great Depression is looming. Anna Francis is a Greek refugee, one of many forced to flee the fighting between Turkey and Greece in the aftermath of the First World War. She lives with her father, who continues to campaign on behalf of his countrymen. Whilst Anna's father hosts meetings and writes to politicians, Anna explores Oxford and the surrounding countryside. One night she sees something in the fields that she wasn't supposed to, irrevocably changing her and the course of her life.
Paul Kearney is, very easily, the most underread author in modern fantasy. He has written epic fantasy with vast armies clashing, heroic fantasy about the tribulations of a flawed hero and several "slipstream" stories about people who cross from one world to another. He has also written a personal novel about the real world's intersection with the fantastic. He's even written a Warhammer 40,000 novel about Space Marines (although that's currently on hold due to legal issues). Kearney has an ability to switch gears and voices to tell many different kinds of story that is highly enviable.
The Wolf in the Attic represents another such gear shift. This is a story about a young woman coming of age in a country that treats her like a foreigner, despite her fluency in the language and her father's attempts to integrate. The notion of being a refugee and trying to find a home after your own is destroyed is a powerful one, and Kearney tells this part of the story extremely well. There is also an impressive mastery of POV and characterisation: Anna idolises her father whilst also being honest about his flaws, but even so the reader may pick up on things about him that Anna herself does not (or is in denial about).
These musings on identity, home and growth sit alongside a couple of scene-stealing cameos from C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis and Tolkien had met and become friends in the mid-1920s and would remain in contact for the rest of their life. They appear very briefly, but Kearney has clearly done his research about the two men, their characters and the times they lived in.
So richly and vividly drawn is 1929 Oxford that the reader may even forget they're reading a fantasy novel until the supernatural enters the fray. First slowly and then with a growing presence, Kearney presents a sort of magical shadow world intersecting with our own, with people and factions represented as one thing in our world but having another role in the other. A mid-novel twist brings the supernatural element much more to the fore and this transition is successful as the book becomes more of a quest or road trip that takes Anna from her comfortable life into something more mystical and primeval.
Kearney has always had an excellent grasp of character and no-nonsense writing, but his writing skills in this book reach new heights with easily the most accomplished prose of his career to date. He handles the transition from the earlier, more grounded chapters to the later, more fantastical ones very well and he makes Anna a compelling protagonist, young but not foolish, inexperienced but not naive. If there is a weakness it might be that some secondary characters are not developed as strongly (Luca most notably) but in a first-person narrative that may be expected.
Overall, The Wolf in the Attic is an unusual book. It has YA hallmarks but isn't really YA. It has elements of fantasy and mythology and history but is more than the some of those parts. The movement between realistic childhood issues and fantasy reminded me somewhat of Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but The Wolf in the Attic is an effortlessly superior novel which has more to say.
The year may only be half over, but The Wolf in the Attic (*****) makes a bold claim to be the best SFF novel released this year (contested, at least so far, only by Guy Gavriel Kay's Children of Earth and Sky). It is a rich and unputdownable read and increases its already-talented author's range and capabilities even further. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.