Mardi McConnochie, Escape to the Moon Islands (Quest of the Sunfish #1), Allen & Unwin, Sept 2016, 352pp., $14.99 (pbk), ISBN: 9781760290917
Four children (and their clever, talking bird) on a boat face adventures, pirates, daring escapes, and bad guys who are looking for their missing scientist father. Anyone who loved Enid Blyton’s or Arthur Ransome’s adventures, as I did, is going to feel right at home with Escape to the Moon Islands. The language has much of the charm of those classic stories, but the nostalgia is cut with a grittier, tougher, and more contemporary sensibility.
What really gives Escape to the Moon Islands its edge though, is the background to the adventures. In an attempt to solve a global drought and famine crisis, scientists unleashed a solution that got out of hand and drowned the world. Sea levels rose dramatically, millions of people died, and coastlines and land changed permanently. Thousands of people are still living in huge refugee camps several generations later, and the Admiralty, now governing everything, are either the brave, selfless heroes who stepped in to save everyone in the wake of the disaster, or the sinister, controlling villains with a suspect agenda.
When the Admiralty comes looking for Annalie and Will’s father he disappears rather suddenly and Annalie and Will (and their talking parrot, Graham) set out to find him in their boat, the Sunfish. Annalie’s friend, Essie and rescued slaveboy, Pod, also get caught up in the journey.
Unlike the classic adventures though, the heroes of this story come to question everything. Is Annalie and Will’s father the good man they believe he is, or a thief, as the Admiralty claims? Essie, sweet and media-savvy, is challenged by life outside her privileged, protected world, and forced to question whether the Admiralty she has been taught to revere is as good as she believes. And Pod has lived with the darker side of this world, being sold from one owner to another, and barely escaping with his life after his pirate master was killed.
One theme that keeps recurring throughout is that of family. Will and Annalie are constantly bickering and fighting, but as Annalie realises, and Will refuses to acknowledge, they are stronger together than they are apart. Their sense of self is shaken by the growing awareness that they don’t know as much as they thought they did about who their father is and what he has been involved in. The further they travel in search of him, the more questions they find, and the more uncertain they become.
Essie’s protected world has also crumbled. Her father has been jailed for fraud, and her mother has left with another man and is clearly more embarrassed by Essie’s disappearance than worried for her daughter. Essie still believes that the father who loves her is a good man, but the evidence is piling up against him. Who is she without these family certainties? And in a life of hardship and slavery, the only thing Pod has been able to hold onto is knowing that his sister is out there somewhere. His one positive goal is to find her one day. For each of the children, family is both strength and dangerous uncertainty.
As much as I loved the book, I did feel slightly uncomfortable with a couple of small points. Annalie is undoubtedly brilliant and capable, and yet she concedes to her brother Will’s leadership, even though it is fairly clear that she is probably right, because, as she tells Essie “he needs to believe that he is [the captain of the ship]“. Under other circumstances, this might have been simply an interesting character observation, and it is probable that a younger reader would see it as such. In this situation, however, with a strong, smart, capable girl pandering to a boy who has been caught out on something that could possibly endanger them all, it jarred slightly in an otherwise balanced and engaging book.
Boys and girls aged 8 to 12 should enjoy this ripping good yarn, and I’m already looking forward to finding out what happens, as this book was left on something of a cliffhanger. Will Annalie and Will find their father? Will Pod find his sister? Will Essie have a family to go back to? And what are the Admiralty really up to? Tune in next time for another exciting episode!
Reviewed by Emily Clarke