Review: Babette Cole

Babette Cole: The Unicorn Princess, The Ghostly Blinkers
Bloomsbury, 2010

I've known for a while these books were in the offing, and have been looking forward to them. Babette Cole is a writer with a unique style, who takes no prisoners. Her Doctor Dog was a favourite of my children, who relished its delight in describing exactly what happens when you have worms. When Mummy Laid an Egg was also an essential prop to me in getting over my English awkwardness at helping my children learn about sex.

Babette Cole owns the Holnest Park Stud, which breeds hunters, so writing a pony book was an obvious choice. I had wondered quite what she'd put in a pony book: in an interesting comment on the mores of publishers today, although sex is allowed for infants, hunting isn't: "Bloomsbury made me take out any references to flirtation, drinking or hunting, which was a bit disappointing. They now go team chasing instead."

I really did want to like these books. I love the cover illustrations, though they are infested with twinkly stars by a marketing department unable to let go of its obsession with princess culture. I probably wasn't helped by reading the second book, The Ghostly Blinkers, first. You really need to read them in order so that you're not bamboozled by the large cast of characters. Penny, the heroine, becomes a scholarship pupil of Fetlocks Hall, and once she gets there, finds it is very far from being a normal school. It's haunted, for a start, and is the centre of the Secret Unicorn Society: the school specialises in finding pupils with special pony powers, and one pupil every so often who is the Unicorn Princess.

I admit it. At this point I thought NOT ANOTHER F******* UNICORN! They're always so GOOD. I want to read about bad unicorns; a race who are not so drippingly full of nobility they make me feel quite ill. Unicorns, I suppose, are the equivalent of angels in pony form: they are the horse as we'd like him to be; noble, and with our best interests always, but always, at heart, and really alas, rather dull. At this point, I excuse Alan Garner's Elidor: certainly not a safe unicorn.

Ho hum. These unicorns are to type. King Valentine Silverwings, King of the Unicorns. Noble kneeling. Much more interesting are the Devlipeds, the equine baddies. The one that's described is the size of a Shetland, which makes sense. Every Shetland I've ever met had a definite sympathy for the dark side. They of course are there to be defeated, and they are, as are their human sympathisers. The anarchy's all on the enemy side, and I'd have preferred it to be just a tad (alright, a lot) wilder on the good side. St Trinian's meets the pony story would have done it; as it is this is Harry Potter meets the pony club (quite literally; the Pony Clubs listed are thinly disguised real branches: The Blackmud and Sparkling Vale, and The Oaklees.)

The books are billed as being the equine equivalent of Harry Potter, and there are definitely similarities; the house system, the pictures which come alive and of course the magic.

That's ok, I suppose. I would have preferred something with the fantasy but with more bite. If it's the publishers who are holding Babette Cole back, let go, for goodness' sake.


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