The first thing Moontrug noticed about Francesca Simon was her hair: curly, brown and BIG. And hair like that means something. The owner of the hair is going to be interesting. And Simon proved to be just that… With a mountain of bestselling Horrid Henry books under her belt, Francesca Simon was speaking to us at The Imagine Festival recently about her latest Norse Gods series: The Sleeping Army and The Lost Gods.
Simon kicked off by revealing how she ‘found’ her subject for the first book in the series, The Sleeping Army, and strangely enough, the idea was hidden away inside Room 40 of the British Museum. Inside the room was a set of Chessmen carved from ivory and walrus tusk by Scandinavians long, long ago. But in the nineteenth century these Chessmen were dug up on the Isle of Lewis, off the north-west coast of Scotland. Simon told us that every story she writes starts with a question and when she looked at these Chessmen for the first time, she realised something. Every single one was sad – in fact not just sad – totally miserable. And then the question came: why are the Lewis Chessmen so sad? And the idea behind The Sleeping Army was born…
In The Sleeping Army, Simon recreates a Britain where Christianity never existed. Instead, Norse Gods are revered by the people and the days of the week are named after them (Wednesday is Wodnesday from the God Woden, Thursday is Thorsday from the God Thor). Even the main character is named after a Norse God: Freya. And The Sleeping Army follows the story of Freya, a young girl from today’s world who unwittingly blows the Ceremonial Horn from a Viking Silver Hoard (which, incidentally, still lives in the British Museum) and awakens Woden’s army. Moments later, Freya finds herself in Asgard, the land of the Gods, with servant-children Alfie and Roskva, an eight-legged horse and a giant berserk called Snot. And they have a BIG task ahead of them: a sinister God, Loki, has stolen Idunn, the keeper of the golden apples which grant the Gods their immortality, and it’s up to Freya and her new friends to find Idunn and restore life to the ancient Norse Gods. Because if she fails, the Gods will continue to sleep as Chessmen and a darker power will emerge.
The plot is fabulously fast-paced, right from the moment Freya blows the ceremonial horn in the British Museum (‘A thunderous roaring ringing shrieking blast rumbled and swelled, pealing and blaring louder and louder and louder until Freya didn’t know where her body ended and the sound began… She pressed her hands against her ears but the blasts were inside her now, controlling her heart, her breath, her life’s blood’) up until the last few pages. And the characters are brilliantly inventive. Take Snot, the ferocious berserk, whose response to anyone who dares to claim Snot is a girl’s name is ‘Say that again and I’ll kill you.’ Or the giantess, Skadi: ‘Her arms bulged out of her tunic sleeves. Her thighs were like tree trunks. Her short dress was far too tight. Freya had a horrible feeling she wasn’t wearing any underwear.’ And Simon’s invented words – ‘snugglebum’, ‘snugglechops’, ‘odoriferous’ – are up there with Moontrug’s best ones.
Freya is an unlikely heroine and it’s exciting to see her grow from the girl with ‘a ketchup stain from lunch on her ratty yellow sweatshirt’ who holds the record for pancakes eaten in ten minutes, to a brave warrior-child hoping to restore the lives of the Gods. Through her friendships with Snot, Roskva and Alfi, Freya learns to adopt Thor’s advice: ‘live fearlessly while you can’ and that’s the reason she’s able to face Hel with such courage. Because let’s be honest, Hel isn’t the easiest of characters: half-goddess, half-corpse, rotting away behind a curtain called Glimmering Misfortune and attended by slaves named Lazy Cow and Slow-Poke.
After talking about The Sleeping Army, Simon gave us a sneak preview of the second book in the series (and Simon’s favourite book so far): The Lost Gods. And as Simon read aloud from her book, her brilliant illustrator, Adam Stower, drew an ENORMOUS Frost Giant. As Simon’s description of the Frost Giants rising went on, Stower’s Frost Giant grew. What started out as a few squiggles emerged into the terrifying image of a giant with lumbering forearms, a hooked nose and an icicle-dripping mouth. It was story-telling at its very best. The entire room were convinced that the Frost Giants (called Bottled Rage, Mouthcramp, Neckbreaker, Lockjaw) were rampaging towards the Shard. In fact Moontrug was quite surprised to see the Shard still standing when she emerged from the Southbank Centre after the talk.
The Sleeping Army and The Lost Gods are brilliantly magical adventures, perfect for 7+ years. And for those Francesca Simon fans who want to know what’s next on Simon’s agenda, watch out for The Monstrous Child – the story of Hel, goddess of the underworld who is very, very, VERY angry…