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by Nick Gifford

(Puffin, £4.99, 214 pages, paperback; January 2003.)

Nick Gifford knows his Bible, knows his cover scanTao and knows his war crimes (Nazi war crimes spring fastest to mind as being, in this novel, most powerfully metaphored). Nick Gifford knows all about teen alienation, fear, bullying and loneliness. He knows his quest fiction; his supernatural fiction; even (surprisingly) his romantic fiction. Were he ever to consider the following point, he might even know that a reviewer would begin a review, as this reviewer was planning to, all the way up to page 98, with a sentence along these lines:

Neither mad nor suffering from a discombobulating hangover, young Ben Aynsley finds himself, in the very first line of Piggies, hauled into a brand new and frightening world that is not of his own devising ...

We begin, therefore, in the familiar fantasy territory of seeing the lead character enter an unfamiliar fantasy territory. (Nick Gifford knows his sub-genre, too: the doorway through to this new land is sparsely but neatly evocative.) Here our hero is very soon at danger. It is not that the world he knows has changed -- although in some cases only subtly, with mild variations on street names, for example -- it is more the case that Ben is at threat from a genre-specific form of predator: the vampire. For Ben, everything has been turtled on to its back, and Ben cannot realign himself; he spends a good part of the first half of the novel in trying to understand why the vampires seem in the majority and why he, and he alone it would at first seem, has the taste and scent of meat about his bones.

All of this is handled extremely well. The writing is as vigorous as sunburn and muscle sprains. Although Piggies is a children's book, it will be enjoyed by any adult with an open mind; furthermore, an adult can bring to the pages a wealth of stock footage and experience that Gifford gleefully tampers with. We dig through the pages like insects through sand, getting rubbed down by the spiky, short paragraphs, and heading for ever-colder grains. Meanwhile, further in Ben travels. Perpetually scared by the thought of having his blood sampled, he searches out a group of 'ferals': a group of people who think the same way that he does. When he finds them, he is not embraced; he is regarded as a threat to the community -- not least by the wise man of the vagabond tribe, who drops our bombshell on page 98.

It would be vicious of a reviewer to say exactly what happens here (as indeed it would be to explain the title, although we can go as far as to say that it's not what you're expecting), but Ben's (new) world is turned upside-down; and for the first time the reader has serious doubts about Ben's genuine frame of mind. This is a masterstroke. From this point onwards, we are on tenterhooks, and hoping for the purity of mind to return, however ugly that purity may appear.

The horrors increase; they pile upon Ben, even in the midst of an odd-couple love relationship. Ben is forced to examine the scab of trust, and to pick at it with dread and curiosity. The book gets faster and nastier, until we arrive at a set of shocks that would not appear tame in an adult horror novel. One image in particular tends to loiter and linger, long after the covers are closed; it roots and snuffles among the reader's imagination, bringing with it a woody scent and a wet chill. Piggies is powerful children's fiction, and a cleverly fast read.

Review by David Mathew.

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