The Good People by Steve Cockayne

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The Good People by Steve Cockayne

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Kenny survives World War Two living in a fantasy world of his own invention, which has unfortunate bearings decades later in this perfect character study.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: July 2007
Publisher: ATOM
ISBN: 978-1904233633

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Kenneth strikes an unusual figure for what Amazon mistakenly think is a teenage fantasy book. Either the ageing man is dangling from a tree wearing a wartime ARP helmet, in protest at the demolition of his family home and surrounding woodland for executive housing to be in its place, or he is sprawling across a table in a bus station café, with one eye on the errant behaviour of modern teenagers and drafting a sprawling recollection of the time he knew and loved Arboria, all for the benefit of a future reader identified only as Jamie.

Kenny as a youngster grew up in World War Two, with his brother Robert, parents and mother's mum, all living in the same family pile, Hedley House. The family is soon extended by an evacuee, Janny. The youngsters at least are aware of what lies beyond the garden gate - the world of Arboria, and its inhabitants who remain in constant antagonism with the Barbarians. The world features The House in the Air - a suspended platform that provides a birds'-eye view of the kingdom, and a guardhouse with the inhabitant Tommy Spelling, and his logs.

The narrative provided by the modern Kenneth strikes a very appealing weave between the wartime memories (sugar sandwiches, petrol rationing and all that having an air-raid warden for a father, and an elder brother that inherits these traits entails) and the ongoing pursuit of activity in Arboria - which can often be rained off, or delayed by school and church visits, but which entertains the youngsters, with its spyhole beneath a willow tree, and lake.

However, as you have hopefully surmised, there is a strong sense within the first few pages that this fantasy realm is just that - fantasy. The author points out that to Kenneth and his companions the water behind the house is a lake, surrounded by forest, while to his parents it is a pond within woods. Reading other books the teenage Kenneth disappointedly notes other fantasy kingdoms are reached through garden gates, or even wardrobes. Arboria isn't so distant you can't still be called in for tea.

But even though we might hazard guesses as to the nature of Tommy Spelling, the character in the woodshed, what are we to make when the boys' gran gives Kenneth the duty of keeping the complete historical record of Arboria - some of which is such an ancient scroll it's written in runes, and on stitched spreads of hide?

There is another inheritance here however that might be more relevant. A good deal is made (subtly, mind) about Kenny's mum having "one of her better days", and ultimately this excellent narrative is about an aberrant character that lets the fantasy game last just that bit too long.

While we might be uncharitable in looking down at old codgers with hobbies of their own mysterious import in bus shelters, Cockayne expertly lets us surface in the mind of one who lives through a regular tale of growing up - but just not growing up enough.

This is all down to the excellent use of first person narrative, and the way the character of Kenny lends a singular edge to such standard points of similar narratives - the introduction of girls, the finding that your more mature older brother has no time for you, and so on.

For those who thought that Pan's Labyrinth at the cinemas looked stunning but didn't try hard enough to tie fantasy world with wartime narrative, then this is some remedy. Arboria isn't inhabited by identifiable fantasy beasties, but is still a world evoked in wartime, and partly in response to such war activities. It is a great homage to and upending of the games lads played, with their bows and arrows replaced by Doodlebugs.

I found no flaw in this book, apart from the branding - having latched on to Amazon's definition of it being a teenage fantasy I found the opening a touch unexpectedly slow, but by the time the more psychological elements entered the frame I realised it was to be read with a mature, knowledgeable feel. But don't read that as irony - there is nothing but sympathy for the main character, and a perfect understanding is offered of Kenny's worlds.

I would hope this book was not too subtle for a teenage audience, but I do think that I received a perfectly nuanced drama of a unique character, and not a genre piece at all. Cockayne nicely surprised me with his straight fantasy trilogy, whose beginning I had the pleasure of reviewing elsewhere a couple of years ago. With his only other book so far he uses the word fantasy to launch himself brilliantly into a book I have no hesitation recommending to all.

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Buy The Good People by Steve Cockayne at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Good People by Steve Cockayne at


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Connor Mcleod said:

The author asks if it was perhaps too subtle for a teenage audience - and I would have to say yes.

Reading this book for the first time at 15, and recently again at 20, I have had completely different experiences.

It is too developed for less mature readers, and yet too childish for an adult.

It’s on an unfortunate edge, but overall remains an interesting story radically different from other teenage fiction.