It is London in 1601, but things are not quite as history would have us believe. The life of the young protagonist, Jack, is about to take a turn away from the future planned out for him, and he goes from being a pawn in a game played by others to one where his resourcefulness and bravery lead to his transformation into a person of some power.
The Battle of the Sun comes over as dreamlike, with figures from alchemical treatises, supernatural happenings and irrational actions all assuming an aura of reality and plausibility, as often happens in dreams. Jeanette Winterson’s declared mode of writing here is to let the action emerge from the situations she conjures up, and much of the first part of the book introduces characters and places and scenarios that seemingly lack resolution until a character from another of her children’s novels — Silver from Tanglewreck (2006) — intrudes herself, at which point the plot gathers momentum and a sense of direction before reaching a satisfying conclusion.
Winterson is a poet, and much of the writing is poetic, from the doggerel and rhyming couplets of the Creature to the evocative descriptions of the sights and smells of 17th century London, from the turns of phrase employed in the narrative to the alchemical imagery which lingers in the mind. The poetry is what helps to save this novel from being merely a prosaic description of fantastical happenings manipulating the dramatis personae and it is poetry which gives the story its own personality. That said, I was just a little disengaged by some of the characters who often appeared to be mere ciphers in the action rather than real fleshed-out individuals.
This novel apparently didn’t set out to be a sequel-cum-prequel to Tanglewreck but that is what it became. And the end of The Battle of the Sun hints that, even if the girl Silver feels it is almost just a dream, there are loose threads to tie up and that the dream (if that is what it is) has not ended. I personally consider Tanglewreck a better novel than The Battle of the Sun (and Silver a more believable lead character than Jack in this tale) but I’d certainly keep an eye out for any third title in the hopes of finding those unresolved threads resolved. In the meantime there is Lighthousekeeping (2004) which first introduced us to Silver.
Though I haven’t yet read Winterson’s adult fiction I do enjoy any of her articles that I catch in the press; on the basis of these two books her children’s fiction takes just as individual a path as her journalism.
Review first published 2010, revised April 2013 and here updated