[Review] An ambitious powerhouse of a story from page one

By John Millen
By John Millen |

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By Timothée de Fombelle
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 978 1 4063 5401 0

It's a bit early to nominate Books of the Year for 2014, but if a young adult novel better than Timothée de Fombelle's Vango comes along in the coming months it will be a most welcome surprise. This breath-taking historical thriller set in the 1930s romps along for more than 400 pages without a single dull moment.

In Vango, de Fombelle has created an enigmatic and unique hero whose adventures are as thrilling as they are original. De Fombelle has written an instant classic: a terrific tale with more twists and turns than a corkscrew. Spread the word.

Vango is a teenager surrounded in mystery. He speaks five languages and can climb vertical buildings like Spider-man. He knows little about his past, and the question of his identity "troubles him from morning to night, and from night to morning". Since his early teenage years he has had to be on the run to survive. What or who has been one step behind him every minute of every day and every night? When will Vango be able to stop?

The opening is a stunner. In the square in front of Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral, some young men are about to be ordained as priests. The police arrive and one of the priests breaks rank. Within seconds, he is shinning up the face of the great cathedral to make his escape - of course it's Vango. De Fombelle will have to come up with something special to maintain the pace and interest after this.

Vango is now on the run and the action moves effortlessly from the bowels of the Graf Zeppelin airship, to the Scottish Highlands, to an island in the Aeolian Seas, to Stalin's Black Sea holiday home.

De Fombelle is equally skilful at creating characters and setting up action and moving his story along at top velocity. But this is a novel with depth as well as shine. Along with all the thrills and spills, Vango has a cast of colourful and unforgettable characters. Here is a writer, like J. K. Rowling, who can bring a character to life with confidence and ease in just a few masterly strokes.

Vango is totally original, but it also references classic thrillers of the past and the hardboiled American crime novels of the '40s and '50s. Everything fits together, and the clear and lively translation work from the original French also deserves maximum praise.

Put this tremendous novel at the top of your to-read list. You won't regret a moment spent in Vango's company.

John Millen can be contacted on [email protected]

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