When two of Australia’s best middle-grade authors come together on a writing project you know it’s going to be something special. The Raven’s Song, by Zana Fraillon and Bren MacDibble, is a stunning book weaving together their two distinct voices to create a story that will stay with you long after closing the cover. Recently shortlisted in the CBCA book of the year for younger readers, this genre bending book reminded me of a cross between The Day of The Triffids and The Last of Us. It weaves science fiction with eco-fiction, magical realism, and a scaryingly accurate dose of reality.
This is how we have to live now.’
Shelby and her best friend Davy live quiet low-tech lives in a closed community that is made up of exactly three hundred and fifty kind, ethical people living on exactly seven hundred hectares.
When they climb through a hole in the perimeter fence to venture into the surrounding jungle, what they find is more astonishing than anything they could have imagined.
And when Shelby realises the terrible danger that is unfolding, it will take all of her daring and determination to ensure the past does not repeat itself.
Intriguing, absorbing and spine-tinglingly good, The Raven’s Song is a brilliant novel by two esteemed writers at the height of their powers.
The story is told from the two main characters’ perspectives – Shelby, who lives in the future after the apocalyptic events of a global pandemic on the 700 hectares allocated to her community, and Phoenix, who lives in the world 100 years earlier in the late 2020’s just before disaster struck. Shelby’s chapters are told in 1st person and Phoenix’s in 3rd person. I quickly got into a rhythm with this narrative style and found it helped distinguish their voices, as did the different but complementary writing style of Bren and Zana.
Shelby lives with her dad and spends time helping on their egg farm, attending school and hanging out with best friend Davy. They live kind, simple lives, enabling the planet to heal, following the rules that have been set in place to ensure it can do so. These include staying inside their perimeter fence and not wandering onto any other communities or into the ‘honoured and natural world’. After Shelby and Davy break the rules, they make some startling discoveries that lead them to learning facts about the past and the present, which both shock and frighten them, and propel them into action.
Phoenix’s mother has recently died and he lives with his siblings and their aunt. He tries very hard to keep them all safe, but feels disconnected from everyone else, due to strange visions. He tells himself these are not real, trying to reassure himself, but when a raven appears, he starts to wonder what is real and what is in his imagination. When these strange visions impact his real life, in particular via his little brother Walter after he falls in the bog, Phoenix becomes frightened and seeks solace from his best friend Charlie, who lives far away. Gradually, Walter and Phoenix and his entire family, succumb to the disaster that is beginning to infect their world.
The two voices weave perfectly together, beginning quite separated, slowly bumping up against each other delicately, winding and twisting towards the inevitable coming together of the main characters and the past and future, in a perfectly paced narrative that kept me turning the pages to see what would happen next, but also lingering on its lyrical magic. There were some chilling scenes that made me shudder, some devastating moments, and plenty of laughter and light. The writing is otherworldy at times allowing insight into the hearts and minds of Shelby and Phoenix as they struggle with the discoveries of startling truths about their worlds.
Readers will connect with the devastation of the global pandemic in the story, which is difficult at times, but also removed enough from our reality to engage with this part of the narrative and with the potential impacts of climate change. The world-building is excellent and the mystical connection between Phoenix and the ‘girl in the bog’ are beautifully drawn, giving a medieval feel at times. Shelby’s kindness and her desire to help protect the planet and everyone on it is innocent and lovely and demonstrates the ability of children and young people to affect their world.
There are heartbreaking moments and the impact of adult choices upon children’s lives is at times quite difficult to read. But ultimately you are left with hope for the future, faith in the ability of nature to heal when we allow her space and time to breathe, a belief in the love and kindness we can all show to each other, especially when we listen to our young people, and in the certainty that human beings can do the right things in order to allow our planet and all of us to flourish.
Highly recommended for ages 11+ this is an important book with themes that will connect to children and teens. It would be excellent to discuss in classrooms and to stimulate ideas for students to write their own stories. I am sure I will be thinking about the skill of these two authors in creating such a different and beautiful book, the issues and themes presented, as well as imagining what Shelby and Phoenix might be doing right now, for a very long time.