I saw Titan books tweeting about this book months ago, and thought it looked Hekla good. This awful pun was belaboured and I used it every time I mentioned or thought about this book. A few weeks ago, it was only 99p on Kindle, so I bought it, intending to read it when I got the chance. That chance was late last week, when I had some free time and my phone in my hands, and I got sucked into the story of vanishing children, a mysterious evil, and Nathan Brookes, guilty teacher, potential hero?
A decade ago, teacher Nathan Brookes saw four of his students walk up a hill and vanish. Only one returned: Olivia, starved, terrified, and with no memory of where she’d been. Questioned by the police but released for lack of evidence, Nathan spent the years trying to forget.
When a body is found in the same ancient woodland where they disappeared, it is first believed to be one of the missing children, but is soon identified as a Bronze Age warrior, nothing more than an archaeological curiosity. Yet Nathan starts to have horrific visions of the students, alive but trapped. Then Olivia reappears, desperate that the warrior’s body be returned to the earth. For he is the only thing keeping a terrible evil at bay.
I didn’t know what I was expecting when I went into this book, other than that it was YA. But actually, as it turns out, Hekla’s Children isn’t YA at all, and I don’t know where I got that idea. Nathan Brookes, the main character, is in his late twenties/early thirties throughout the book, and the four children who disappeared end up being sort of… out of time.
That said, though, not being YA is by no means a criticism of this book. It’s excellent. Nathan’s confusion and guilt over the disappearance of the children he was supposed to be supervising has pushed him to abandon his career as a teacher, and eke out a miserable living as an instructor at an Outdoor Education Centre, which he’s not sure he likes, but provides him with accommodation and a living. When a mysterious Bronze Age body is unearthed near where those four children disappeared, Nathan feels an irresistible urge to return to the ‘scene of the crime’ as it were, and investigate – or atone for his inattention, which resulted in the disappearance of his charges.
With a cast of characters both complex and unpredictable, relationships between the children and adults that are finely drawn and utterly believable, and a storyline that kept me entirely hooked, this book is a magnificent roller-coaster ride.
Intertwining history with fantasy, and grabbing me by the hand and dragging me into the mysterious world of Un, this book had wonderful layers to it, steeped in British history and folklore. Some touching moments, especially with the parents of one of the missing children, added a depth to the horror which balanced it out nicely for me.
Finishing in the wee small hours of the morning, I was left satisfied but also unsettled – definitely an author I’ll look out for more from.
*A note: On Goodreads, many of the reviews of this complain that it’s not enough of a horror, and too much of a fantasy. I went into it expecting a fantasy, so was pleasantly surprised by the dark undertones as well, since I thought they were pleasingly drawn, but that’s possibly a matter of both my taste and what I was expecting from the book.