When boys dream of woodland adventures, hiding out where adults will never find them, they no doubt imagine exactly the kind of place where Liam Lynch and his friend Max found the Death Dealer. Although just an old, tarnished pruning knife uncovered as the two were “messing about, digging for treasure,” in Raven Summer, David Almond’s skillfully crafted young adult novel, it becomes a symbol of both the adventure and the danger that boyhood summer held.
As Liam and Max play their war games, find secret places, stash food and compasses for future forays, a raven calls out, mysteriously beckoning the boys. Following the raven’s call, they discover a baby girl wrapped in a blanket next to a jam jar crammed with money. And that’s not even the most extraordinary thing that happens.
Exploits of the menacing Gordon Nattrass, Liam’s childhood friend now turned bully, contrast with the bucolic setting – blue skies, sheep grazing in shimmering fields outside the kitchen window. Inside Liam’s house in northern England, his mum, an artist, photographs odd scenes for a gallery opening while his writer dad does what he always does – keeps on with his scribbling, turning his son’s coming-of-age summer into a story.
Liam is a character readers will relate to – keeping secrets, confused about friendships, struggling with the morality of war. As he and his friend Max are growing more impatient with each other and moving apart, he meets Oliver. A foster son from Liberia, Oliver claims to be in great danger if forced to return home. Liam also befriends Oliver’s friend Crystal, another foster teen, and soon he must ponder the truth about situations that once seemed simple and straightforward. Liam’s world is becoming larger and darker.
The teens’ innocent summer games take a frightening turn when Liam’s two friends, one a bully, the other a boy who has seen and done the unimaginable, confront each other and draw Liam in. As lines between good and evil blur, Liam struggles with what he has almost done. Was it a “game that had gone wrong” or did the boys truly not know what they were doing?
A story that in less accomplished hands might seem overly dark and brutal, here has resolution and subtle, thoughtful lessons. Almond, the author of the award-winning “Skellig” and “Kit’s Wilderness,” has again written a truly original novel – one that is lyrical, often frightening, and sure to be widely discussed.