Francesca Simon is best known for her phenomenally popular Horrid Henry books, which are a staple of most children’s book shelves, and the success of which have probably done as much for children’s literature as the success of the Harry Potter books.
Regular readers will know that although I value the Horrid Henry books because they have delighted and continue to delight a whole host of child readers, some of whom would perhaps never have enjoyed books otherwise, I really, really dislike the Horrid Henry books, for reasons which have, in the past, deserved a post of their own.
The Sleeping Army however, is not a Horrid Henry book. It is a standalone book by Simon, and it is a fantasy fiction book set in the modern world, but one in which the people of England still worship Norse gods rather than Christianity, and in which a young girl is sucked into the world of those gods during an unfortunate incident in the British Library involving the Lewis Chess Men and a ceremonial horn.
I love the premise of the book. I am fascinated by Norse mythology, and having read and enjoyed Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman with my son, I wondered if this would be in the same vein and something I could happily pass on to him. I wondered if my disillusionment with Horrid Henry was only with the character, rather than with Simon’s writing.
Firstly, I have to say in its defence, it is better than Horrid Henry in many ways. The heroine, Freya, is not awful for a start, and I liked the fact that Simon chose a girl to have this adventure, which in the hands of many other authors would have been a role given to a boy hero to have.
I do take issue with the writing though. I felt this book was really rushed. The set up was interesting. The idea that modern Britain had eschewed Christianity in favour of the Norse Gods is a brilliant one, but it was so hastily executed I felt as if I had dropped in half way through a series of books and needed notes to catch up, rather than starting at the beginning of a story. The ending is incredibly abrupt and was hugely unsatisfying in lots of ways. Having done some research it appears that there is a second book in the series, which might explain the ending rather better.
I didn’t think Freya was a very well rounded character. There were hints of depth to her, but because the book is short, everything in it happened at a tremendous gallop and was dealt with incredibly briefly. I will not give plot spoilers, but the bones of the story were great. It just needed to be at least twice as long to really develop empathy with the characters and drill down a bit more into each situation that arises. The children in the book are put into some really hairy situations, but you only get the briefest moment to acclimatise and take in what is happening before you’re whisked on to the next section.
I wanted this to be a brilliant, immersive story. It could have been. It wasn’t. I don’t think children will necessarily miss out, reading this book. They accept stories much more at face value than I do, on the whole, and for children with short attention spans who want adventure on every other page, this is probably going to be a hit.
It is quite violent in places, and pretty brutal. You do need to know at least a bit of background with regard to viking culture, the Lewis Chess Men and the Norse gods to make this work at all, and perhaps even a short glossary or introduction with the book would have helped with that.
I recommend it to children aged 8-12 if they’re keen on mythology. It might make a good book to read in class if you’re doing a project on vikings or Norse myths and want a companion text to read with your class which brings to life some of the aspects of your study.