by Joan Aiken
Recommended Ages: 11+
Originally titled Is, this book took its present title when it was re-published in the U.S. By naming it after its main character Is Twite, younger sister of the illustrious Dido, Joan Aiken ensured the ninth(?) installment in the Wolves Chronicles (after The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Black Hearts in Battersea, Nightbirds on Nantucket, The Whispering Mountain, The Stolen Lake, Limbo Lodge a.k.a. Dangerous Games, The Cuckoo Tree and Dido and Pa) would be practically impossible to locate in an internet search, with or without the added word "Underground." The trick, in case you ever want to try it, is to include the words "Joan Aiken Wolves Willoughby Chase series" in your search. Good luck.
I actually own both versions of this book - Is and Is Underground - the one published in the U.K., bound in a single volume with Cold Shoulder Road; the other a U.S. edition with cover art by the great Edward Gorey. Besides the title, there are other interesting differences, such as the word "football" being replaced with "soccer" - which came as a bit of surprise in the middle of a book otherwise written in a strong British dialect. It made me exclaim, "Croopus! There's some havey-cavey editing going on here." It'll be days, maybe weeks, before I stop saying things like that. The earthy, distinctive lingo spoken by Dido and Is Twite is that infectious.
Both versions of Is have been on my books-to-read shelf for a long time - almost, perhaps, since their author (1924-2004) was alive. I had enjoyed all the previous books, plus a subsequent one (Midwinter Nightingale) that I read out of sequence. Nothing in particular stopped me from reading it, except one can only really read one book at a time, and I've had plenty of other stuff to read. I must give Aiken credit, though; as soon as I picked it up, I fell right back under the spell of her unique period of alternate-history Britain, when instead of all those Hanoverian Georges and Williams in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Stuart line with its Scots brogue retained the throne of a land infested with wolves and villains with flamboyantly fiendish designs. It was as if I never left, slipping comfortably into the familiar surroundings of Croopuses and Havey-Caveys and relentlessly strange imagery, and dastardly deeds so ludicrously over-the-top that you would be mad at Aiken for imposing on your willingness to suspend disbelief, if only they didn't bear a chilling similarity to certain evil deeds being done in our time.
Is, short for Isabett, is content to live in the remote woods of Blackheath Edge with her sourpuss older sister Penny, making dolls and hunting mushrooms and entertaining a mostly feral cat in the barn they call home. But then their Uncle Hosiah appears, pursued by wolves, and dies after extracting a promise from Is to look for his runaway son Arun. Feeling honor-bound to see the matter through, Is hikes to London, where she learns more than half the city's children have disappeared, including Arun and the king's own son, Prince Davie. Her only clue is a mysterious whisper of a place called Playland, to which children both highborn and low are enticed by the promise of a life of leisure. Only Is seems to have the sense to ask, "But how does it pay?" She finds her way on board the Playland express, a monthly night train from London that takes as many as 200 kiddies north to the separatist kingdom of Humberland and its ruinous, industrial hell of a capital, Blastburn. There, instead of the promised stay at the Hotel Joyous Gard, they are worked like slaves in coal mines extending under the sea, and a dangerous iron foundry, and other manufacturing plants, and where nearly everyone is forced to live underground, out of sight of the sun.
In Blastburn, domain of the so-called Gold Kingy, children from 5 to 20 years old are taken from their parents and worked to death in miserable, hazardous conditions. And since this policy has already pretty much wiped out the younger generation of the local population, the economy depends on nobbling little 'uns from the south. Meantime, Gold Kingy is trying to recruit soldiers for an invasion of the south, hoping to take over the whole country before the country comes after him. The result is a nightmarish idea of the worst that greed can do to a society, a self-defeating nastiness so brutal that it seems absurd - until you pause to think about some of the variations of self-defeating nastiness to which the populations of whole countries have meekly submitted within the last 100 years. Then it becomes not so much a silly attempt to top nine previous books' worth of bizarre villainy, as a reduction to the bare essentials of certain horrors in our world's recent past, present, and possible near future. It kind of comes down to this, Aiken seems to be saying, whether you happen to think of child soldiers in East Africa or child suicide bombers in the Middle East, whole populations starved or worked to death by communist dictatorships, or families pulled apart by the policies of fascist states. If it seems stupid, that's because it is. If you think it couldn't happen, behold - it has happened, is happening and will happen again.
What isn't likely to happen is the streak of luck that allows Is to lead the people of Blastburn to freedom. It just so happens, for starters, that Gold Kingy is another uncle of hers - Roy Twite by name - and he has some funny superstitions. He thinks his grandfather, Is's 102-year-old great-grandpa, has a secret formula for longevity. He suspects his aunt, Is's weather-sensing great-aunt Ishie, of being a witch. He even fears Is a little bit, both because she knows something about Good King Dick down south, and because of a little prophetic dream she tells him about. Then there's the stroke of luck that enables Is to communicate by thought-waves with other children trapped in the coal mines. Another is her discovery that the local cat-boy - a kid who sincerely believes he is a cat, and lives accordingly - is really her cousin Arun. And finally, there's... well, that would be saying too much.
Let's just say, all these strokes of luck strike none too soon to save the people who deserve saving. Luckiest of all is the appearance of Is herself, at just the right moment, displaying precisely the nerve and activity and take-no-nonsense attitude that the situation requires. With the help of a little magic, a little madness of just the right kind, and a lot of luck, she gives a network of oppressed child-slaves the cue they've been waiting for to rise up and set themselves free. It makes you realize how hard it must be to manage a similar uprising where there isn't anyone with the magic, luck, or leadership Is has.
Aside from that, it's just an over-the-top silly kids' thriller, full of gruesome thrills - like how many ways people can come to a sticky end in a place like Blastburn - and notes of grief, and quirky characters, and whimsical notions, from a night train for runaways denuding London of its youth to a monster whose cruel methods of execution include shutting a woman up inside a grid of rolling, floor-to-ceiling library stacks. Besides tantalizing us with the names of songs and stories we will never hear, it teases us with riddles - most of which we have to figure out on our own. It indulges in flights of black humor, such as the image of a cat crushed by a steam-hammer being picked up and leaned against the side of a house, like a board. And it challenges us to decipher journal entries scribbled by a main character whose spelling is as sketchy as her surroundings. Why can't these Twite girls ever find themselves in a normal situation? Answer: It would be less fun for us.
The remaining books in this series, in order, are Cold Shoulder Road, Midwinter Nightingale, and The Witch of Clatteringshaws. The two I haven't already read are at the top of my short-term to-read pile. Aiken's numerous, imagination-rich books include the three "Felix" novels (Go, Saddle the Sea, etc.), a dozen or so "Arabel and Mortimer" stories, three books featuring a boy sleuth named Ned (In Thunder's Pocket, etc.), a half-dozen romances based on the works of Jane Austen (Mansfield Revisited, etc.), Midnight Is a Place, The Cockatrice Boys, Mice and Mendelson, and many other titles ranging from period romances to sci-fi/fantasy tales and modern mystery-thrillers. I have a deep affection for her style, which some (I think) have tried but failed to imitate. But with so many of her works yet to be read, I don't feel cheated.