Gill Lewis, Sky Dancer

Oxford University Press, 2017, ISBN 978-0-19-274925-3

Joe is grieving for his father, a moorland gamekeeper who has died following a prison spell that broke his spirit and his health. His crime was to kill a hen harrier. Joe can't bear what happened to his dad, but nor can he bear the fact that beautiful wild birds lose their lives so that rich people can shoot grouse for sport. At school, he is regarded with hostility because of his father's crime. Meanwhile his brother is following in their father's footsteps, and looks likely to want to get rid of any remaining hen harriers, despite the law. Joe's loyalty to tradition and to his family and their way of life is in direct conflict with his love of nature. The owner of the grouse moor will do anything to keep his lucrative business going, including threatening Joe's family with eviction from the house they have always lived in. Minty, the owner's daughter and a childhood friend of Joe's, is blind to the impact of her family's stewardship of the land. Ella, a town-bred girl who has moved in next door to Joe with her mother, becomes as passionate as he does to save hen harriers from extinction. She devotes lots of time to finding out as much as she can about them, and has a blazing row with Minty about the need to protect the environment in general and the hen harrier in particular. Gradually Joe and Ella change Minty's views, and this very diverse trio join forces in a desperate bid to protect a hen harrier chick.

This is an extremely impressive novel. As in so many of her books, Gill Lewis writes beautifully and very knowledgably about the environment and nature. There is so much more here too. The emotional and ethical challenges Joe faces - his grief, his difficult relationship with his taciturn brother, his often fraught friendships with Ella and Minty, his divided loyalties - are depicted very skilfully and movingly. Class differences, prejudices and tensions are explored sensitively. A strong underlying theme about social justice comes combined with a passionate case for conservation. Lewis is far too respectful of her readers to provide trite or easy answers. Instead, her novel poses a range of thought-provoking questions. And it ends on a note of hope.