Robots vs. Mermaids: A Phoenix books review

I’ve been slacking off a bit (okay, a lot) on my reviews lately – but I’ve decided that’s a good thing, because it means I get to review the two latest books sent to me by The Phoenix as a spectacular double bill! It’s almost as if I planned it. Let’s pretend I did.

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It’s quite appropriate to review these two together, because they were both written by author and illustrator Neill Cameron, who has been behind many of the stories published by The PhoenixTamsin and the Deep, illustrated by Kate Brown, follows the titular heroine as she battles an evil mermaid who has been preying on her family for generations; Mega Robo Bros, illustrated by the author, is the story of two bickering brothers who also happen to be superpowered robots living in a future version of London.

Both of the stories were serialised in The Phoenix before they were published as a collection, and I caught the tail end of each of them – and was immensely annoyed that I’d missed out on the beginnings. Because of this, I was delighted to get these two review copies. I could finally read these two fantastic stories all the way through!

Let’s start with Tamsin and the Deep. This spooky Cornish tale reminds me of one of my favourite children’s series, The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper. It has everything a fantasy fan could want; a plucky heroine with unexpected powers, who has to defeat an ancient evil while making sure that the world at large doesn’t learn what lurks just beneath the surface of normality. The story begins when Tamsin is dragged underwater by a mermaid, and washes up on a beach a month later with no memory of what happened – until she realises that she was the victim of a case of mistaken identity, and the creature from the depths is after her brother instead…

As well as the exciting plotline, Tamsin has compelling characters, and some really brilliant humour. I especially love the “censorship” that’s frequently used for comic effect:

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I’ve seen some properly cringey ways of avoiding swearing in children’s books and comics before – this, though, gets it spot-on.

Moving to Mega Robo Bros – one of the things I love most about this story is the way it switches between high-concept sci-fi drama and everyday family or school life, explored through the medium of robots (because let’s face it, what’s not improved by exploring it through the medium of robots? Well, war, I suppose. That’s how we got Terminators). Alex and Freddy are often called upon to save London – whether it’s rescuing the Royal Family from out-of-control guard bots, or fighting the evil Robot 23 – but they also have to deal with nagging parents, scary babysitters, and bullies:

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Alex and Freddy are wonderful characters, with their humanity and their robot natures perfectly balanced – sometimes brave, sometimes scared, sometimes reckless, sometimes insufferable, each of them is totally believable as a child trying to work out their place in the world. The setting of future London is brilliantly constructed, with flying cars and Tube trains interweaving buildings that we all recognise from today.

Mega Robo Bros is continuing in The Phoenix, as is Tamsin’s sequel, Tamsin and the Dark. I’d highly recommend reading these, and then picking up the comic itself to see how the stories develop.

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About Alice Nuttall

Alice Nuttall is a caffeine-guzzling knitter who divides her time between Oxford and the various worlds in her head. She is the author of a YA fantasy novel, Spider Circus, and three webcomics, Footloose, Cherry, and Black Market Magic, as well as several short stories.
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