Friday, January 4, 2008

Joan Aiken

The Wolves Series
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Age: 12+

For such a terrific series of adventures, the Wolves series by Joan Aiken is sure hard to find. Some of them are no longer in print; some that weren’t in print are back in print (but who knew?); and some that were back in print a short time ago are out of print again (but who knew?). It’s not as if the titles of all the books in the series are listed anywhere (or if they are, the list is frightfully out of date) and finding them all stretches the abilities of even the most advanced search engine. I have twice thought I had read the whole series, only to find out there were books in the series of which I had never heard. I have combed used book dealers, discovered new reprints, and occasionally even ordered a book that was supposedly available only to be told later that--oops!--it’s out of stock.

All this trouble to find a few books that ought to be classics, read and loved by English-speaking children all over the sense of injustice burns within me. You see, I think Joan Aiken is today’s E. Nesbit. Anyone who loves to read weird, creepy, adventurous stories featuring resourceful kids with a charming accent should read this series. People who like tales of whimsy, fantasy, mystery, conspiracy, alternative-history, Dickensian villainy and Dickensian waifs, adventures at sea, in the city, or in the country--written with special charm for young readers--should flock to these books. Anyone who has met Dido Twite once will gladly meet her again. Anyone who reads these books will find phrases like “Croopus!” and “havey-cavey” slipping out in casual conversation. Yet the books go in and out of print and no one can keep straight how many of them there are!

Here is my latest count of the books in the fantastic Wolves series by the extremely prolific novelist and playwright whose adult works include something called Emma Watson:

1. The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.
2. Black Hearts in Battersea.
3. Nightbirds on Nantucket.
4. The Cuckoo Tree.
5. The Stolen Lake.
6. Dido and Pa.
7. Is Underground.
8. Cold Shoulder Road.
9. Dangerous Games.
10. Midwinter Nightingale.

I have located summaries of numbers 7 and 8 on the internet, but, as of this writing, I have been unable to secure copies of the books. I take it they center on Dido Twite’s younger sister, Is (short for Isabett), who I last saw in Black Hearts in Battersea and had totally forgotten about. I didn’t even know these two “lost books” existed until I recently bought a copy of Midwinter Nightingale. If Ms. Aiken’s other books are any indication, I expect to be delighted when I do get to read those books.

A word remains to be said about Joan Aiken’s hundred-something other books. Judging by the list of titles, I reckon she specializes in “Gothic fiction” when she writes for adults, and tales of mystery, horror, naval adventure, and fantasy when she writes for young readers. Her adult titles include If I Were You, Foul Matter, The Five-Minute Marriage, Voices in an Empty House, and Beware the Bouquet. Her books for young readers include Bridle the Wind, Go Saddle the Sea, Died on a Rainy Sunday, The Whispering Mountain, and The Shadow Guests, besides the other books reviewed on the Book Trolley. I invite you to read them and let me know what they’re about!

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Age: 8+

Here is the first in the loosely-named “Wolves Chronicles,” now containing at least eight books written over a period of nearly forty years. In it, a very accomplished and prolific author (Aiken has written over a hundred books for children and adults) begins what is probably her most popular series—-vaguely gothic, vaguely Dickensian adventures set in the days of the Industrial Revolution, when railroads were beginning to eclipse the horse-drawn coach, and where wolves prowled the English countryside during the winter.

In fact, the wolves make the setting quite unusual. Driven by starvation from the northern lands, they make brazen sorties into human-populated areas and are a real menace to train drivers, coachmen, and anyone found out of doors unarmed. Other than being a striking part of the scenery, the wolves aren’t really so crucial to this story.

No, indeed, the really horrid predator in this story is a woman named Letitia Slighcarp—-only the first of many characters with rib-tickling names—-who becomes the governess and estate manager at the country manor of her very distant cousin, Sir Willoughby Green, when the latter takes his sickly wife abroad for her health. Left in Miss Slighcarp’s bony, grasping hands are two adorable young heroines: delicate, gentle Sylvia, and her brave, impetuous cousin Bonnie.

Almost the instant Sir Willoughby’s chaise drives out of the front gate, Miss Slighcarp drops the charade of being a governess and benign steward of the Green household. She fires the servants, starts selling everything that isn’t nailed down, cruelly mistreats the girls, and ransacks Sir Willoughby’s papers. When tragedy strikes, Miss Slighcarp gloatingly sends Bonnie and Sylvia to a nasty charity school and prepares to claim Willoughby Chase for her own.

At this point the girls are practically without hope, and enduring conditions that only a truly depraved person would subject innocent children to (in other words, a just-slightly-worse-than-average 19th century British boarding school). At this point it looks as though they could perish there, deprived of everything that so recently filled their lives with cheer. A clever escape, the help of a goose-boy named Simon, and an accidental meeting in a London tenement give them one, wafer-thin chance of upsetting Miss Slighcarp’s nefarious plans.

But what, after all, can two girls who have run away from an orphanage do with no one to speak for them? Where can they go for help? You’ll enjoy finding this out. It’s the classic tale of good children being done out of their health, wealth, and happiness by wicked adults—-told with wit, compassion, and a lightness of style suited for being read by or read to the very young. If you agree with the book’s conclusion that this has been a superb adventure, you will probably be interested in knowing that the next story in the series is called Black Hearts in Battersea.

Black Hearts in Battersea
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Age: 10+

I think this is the second novel in the “Wolves” series that spans four decades of creativity by one of England’s more prolific children’s authors. Daughter of the poet Conrad Aiken, Joan writes with deft wit, original diction, and an ear for dialects and amusing slang. She also knows how to craft tired old plots into breathlessly exciting, funny, surprising, and weird adventures.

One of the funny, surprising, and weird things about this series is the setting. In The Wolves of Willoughby Chase it seemed unusual enough: a version of 19th century England in which wolves are a constant threat throughout the winter. Now it flowers into something positively fantastic: a parallel-history England in which the Stuarts never left the throne (James III is King) and the Hanoverian George is a vile pretender whose supporters are thick with plots.

A couple of years after the events of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the charming, gifted goose-boy named Simon comes to London to study painting with his friend, Dr. Gabriel Field. He immediately runs into difficulty: Field is nowhere to be found. The disreputable family he claimed to be boarding with say, in their turn, that they have never heard of him.

All the same, Simon begins to work for a wheelwright named Cobb, study at the art academy of the eccentric Furneaux, and make the acquaintance of the even more eccentric Duke of Battersea, whose wife’s lady-in-waiting is none other than Sophie, Simon’s fellow-sufferer at the foundlings’ school from which he ran away years ago. Simon makes some unlikely friends, including the sullen young Lord Bakerloo and the irrepressible cockney child Dido Twite. Also, through no fault of his own, Simon makes some fiendish enemies, mainly by happening to be on the spot with courage and resourcefulness whenever the Hanoverians make some attempt on the Duke’s life.

Finally the villains realize that this is no time for half-measures, and they shanghai Simon in order to maroon him on a rocky island. Then they prepare one last, spectacular trap to do away with the Duke and the King in one fell stroke. They have underestimated Simon and his friends, however, if they think they will be so easily sidelined. Even shipwreck, wild wolves, fire, sabotage, and bombs can’t stop people who have determination, loyalty, and cleverness on their side-—not to mention a multi-purpose tapestry and a hot-air balloon!

There is a rather sad note amid all these adventures, however, but be of good cheer. When Sophie says that she feels that somehow they will all see their little friend again, she is absolutely right. You will see her first, though, in Nightbirds on Nantucket.

Nightbirds on Nantucket
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Age: 10+

The prolific author of the Wolves Series returns at the top of her form with this third book in the set, starring the clever cockney child, Dido Twite. Last seen shipwrecked off the coast of England (see Black Hearts in Battersea), she wakes up on board a Nantucket whaling ship after a ten-month coma. Immediately, she is back at the center of a swirl of adventure and intrigue, having nothing to do with wolves, really, but lots to do with the nefarious Hanoverians who want to overthrow King James III of this alternative, mid-19th-century England.

Aided by a nervous little girl named Dutiful Penitence Casket, a songful ship’s boy named Nate whose pet mynah bird talks like somebody’s butler, and Dido's own wit and grit, she overcomes the trying Aunt Tribulation, who is actually a character familiar to readers of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. She also stands up to a gang of Hanoverians plotting to blow up the King of England, reunites a melancholy sea captain with the great pink whale of his desire, brings an extremely insecure child out of her shell, and dares many other things that make one wonderingly say, “Croopus!”

With a bit of spoof, a bit of fantasy, a lot of adventure, bad guys who deserve every bit of their fate, and good guys who are really entertaining company, this book is another resounding success. Dido’s adventures continue in The Cuckoo Tree.

The Cuckoo Tree
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Age: 10+

The fourth book in the Wolves Series (in the order they were written, at least) has a paradoxical title. Cuckoos, you know, don’t actually build nests of their own--they lay their eggs in others’ nests. This is a metaphor that works on at least two different levels in this exciting, endearing tale. Try to spot them. Maline would be proud of you.

Ms. Aiken again proves herself a dab hand at stories about Dickensian waifs thrown into distressing circumstances by greedy, ill-meaning adults. This adventure renews our acquaintance with the clever, elfin child, Dido Twite. This time she has just arrived in England after her adventures in Nightbirds on Nantucket, accompanied by the wounded and ailing Captain Hughes, who carries important dispatches for the Lords of the Admiralty. Their journey to London is stopped by a suspicious, nighttime carriage accident, stranding the pair in the middle of an inheritance imbroglio combined with yet another Hanoverian plot against the reigning Stuart king. Did I forget to mention? This is an alternate history of England in which Queen Victoria and her people never ruled England.

A new king--Richard IV--is about to be crowned in London, but some of the folks in and around the small town of Petworth have other ideas. At the same time, a nearly-fourteen-year-old boy named Sir Tobit is about to come into his inheritance...but some of the same folks don’t want that to happen either. Alhough the good guys include a band of smugglers, a wild child who talks to an invisible person in the sky, and a blind shepherd whose dog is smarter than some people, there’s no doubt who the bad guys are. For one, a puppet master with a creepy stammer and a penchant for throwing children down wells. For two others, a pair of evil witches who use a hallucinogenic West Indian nut to brainwash people. For a fourth member of the conspiracy, Dido’s own hoboy-playing, ne’er-do-well Pa.

Dido’s resourcefulness is put to its ultimate test as she participates in a jailbreak, tries to lift a curse off her beloved "Cap’n," outruns a barge full of corkscrews on the back of an elephant, and finally tries to stop the Hanoverians from mounting St. Paul’s cathedral on casters and rolling it into the Thames. The question that will burn in your mind to the very end of the book is...will she be reunited with Simon, the gooseboy-turned-Duke?

This book actually has some magic in it, but I recommend the whole series to Harry Potter fans regardless. You’ll love the heroine, the humor, the danger, and the classic fairy-tale plot of deprived kids overcoming monstrous odds. Also, admirers of the mischievous Weasley twins will find kindred spirits in the Wineberry Men. For another adventure of Cap’n Hughes and Dido, which takes place before this one but was written after it, see The Stolen Lake.

The Stolen Lake
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Age: 12+

The sixth book in the beloved Wolves series actually has no wolves in it; but there are a lot of other dangerous things, and some of them are quite magical. In fact, with this story Ms. Aiken has created a truly original fantasy. Starting with an alternate history in which James III is King of England instead of Queen Victoria (though at one point, she slips and refers to Queen Victoria), she spins a wild and weird tale combining elements of the King Arthur legend with the Incas of Peru, the tribes of the Brazilian rain forest, and such mythical creatures as the roc (or, to be exact, the auroc).

I believe this whole adventure was inspired by a footnote in history, which says that Brazil was named after a legendary magical isle, associated with King Arthur, which its discoverers believed they had found. What if there actually was some truth to that story? What if, at the Battle of Dyrham in the year 577, the Britons and Romans were defeated by the Saxons and sailed away to South America to start a civilization known, in modern times, as Roman America? And what if, after King Arthur was wounded and taken away to the island of Avalon in the middle of a sacred lake, the fleeing Romans took the lake with them?

And now, in the mid-19th-century, one of the allies of James III’s England is the isolated nation of New Cumbria, deep in the forests and volcanic mountains of South America. And Dido Twite, on board His Majesty’s ship Thrush, sailing home to England after her adventures in Nantucket, finds herself in the middle of a right fix, when Captain Hughes receives orders summoning him to the aid of the Queen of New Cumbria. The problem, it turns out, is that the sacred lake has been stolen, just when it seems that the Once and Future King was going to return from across its waters. She wants Hughes and Co. to get her lake back from a neighboring king, who apparently stole it in retaliation for the abduction of his daughter. And bright, brave cockney child Dido Twite is going to be part of the plan.

There’s a lot of sinister and weird stuff going on, though: fantastically, frighteningly, outrageously weird stuff that shares in the same legendary background as Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, and T. H. White’s The Once and Future King; stuff that involves witchcraft (which is defined as what happens when two or more evil people combine their evil for a common purpose), abduction, human sacrifice, daring escapes, gruesome deaths, star-crossed lovers, cruel hexes, a hideous 1300-year-old woman whose diet and interior décor are as awful as her personality, and a minstrel who tells stories whose “point” you have to figure out for yourself; also, there are man-eating fish, man-eating birds, a man-eating leopard, a hell-hound hunt in which humans are the quarry, a case of amnesia, and a series of desperate messages torn out of a dictionary and tied around the necks of pussy-cats. Who can ask for anything more?

This story takes place between the events in Nightbirds on Nantucket and The Cuckoo Tree, though it was written after both. For other adventures featuring the winning Ms. Twite, enjoy Black Hearts in Battersea and Dido and Pa. The series is currently available in a charming reprint edition from the Houghton Mifflin Company.

Dido and Pa
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Age: 12+

The seventh book in the series that began with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase picks up exactly where The Cuckoo Tree left off, with King Richard IV newly crowned in his alternate-history version of 19th-century England, and clever young Dido Twite bemoaning her loneliness while her long-lost friend Simon, who is now the Duke of Battersea, searches for her in the Suffolk downs.

He finds her but nearly immediately loses her again; for at last, Dido’s rotten-to-the-core, brilliant musician father has found a use for her. He wants her to take part in a diabolical, Hanoverian plot against good King Dick, which involves a royal lookalike, a laudanum addict who (for a farthing apiece) lets 83 lollpoops sleep in her cellar, and a mesmerizingly wicked Hanoverian margrave who reckons that the healing powers of music are the only things keeping him alive.

Lollpoops, for those of you who have never lived in a parallel-universe London circa 1840, are some of the 10,000 or so orphan children scraping a living in the streets. Many of them belong to a club that exists for mutual aid and cooperation, though not all the footloose kids of London are kind or trustworthy. There’s another group, called the Bowmen, who run a vicious protection racket and serve as spies for the Margrave. But the lollpoops become instrumental in stopping the Margrave’s vile plan, as they make pretty good spies and messengers too.

Even with their help, however, it looks like this time Dido and her friends may have met their match. How can you stop people who have no conscience, and who have the brains, the money, and the manpower to make anyone (including the King himself) disappear? How can you stop an evil plan involving a triumphal procession through a tunnel under the Thames, a concert of original music by Abednego Twite (alias Boris von Bredalbane), a fearfully abused girl known as the Slut, and the convenient fact that only Simon and his sister Sophie remain alive of the King’s close friends?

And then, in one horrible night, Sophie disappears while attending the Margrave’s musical soiree and Simon is reported missing and presumed dead while battling the fierce, starving wolves that are closing in on London...

This is a gripping, scary adventure and a sensitive character portrait at the same time. This time, though the bad guys get their comeuppance like never before, the good guys experience horror and loss as well. Though the book’s ending seems to draw the adventures of Dido Twite to a most satisfying conclusion, I hear tell of a more recent book featuring our self-possessed heroine. If I can get hold of Dangerous Games (currently out of print, and the used copies are out of my price range) you’ll hear about it right here. Judging by how this series started good and got better and better, my guess is I’ll be calling for a reprint!

Dangerous Games
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Age: 12+

The "Wolves" series continues with another adventure of Dido Twite, written out of sequence. Somewhere between her adventures in The Stolen Lake and The Cuckoo Tree, Dido finds herself sailing to a remote, exotic island called Aratu, whose wildlife is so dreadful that the ship's rats throw themselves overboard as they approach the island.

Even more dangerous and exciting than the pearl snakes, the crocodiles, and the stinging monkeys, though, are the intrigues of a king's grasping brother who once poisoned the king's wife and threw their daughter off a cliff...the talented young doctor who turns out to be a woman in disguise...the old witch, driven insane by guilt, who wanders the streets searching for her lost son...the city where women who go out with their heads uncovered are hanged...the peaceful forest people whose everyday life is filled with simple, but powerful, magic...and a chase through forests and mountains, sacred standing stones and the house of a madman, crushing rainstorms and huge tidal waves.

Through it all, plucky heroine Dido Twite remains a keen observer, level-headed and brave, even while the scholarly young Lord Herodsfoot falls head-over-heels in love, and fiercely Scottish Captain Sanderson gets bitten by a deadly snake, and good old Mr. Multiple gets a knock on the head, and the mysterious Aunt Tala'aa comes and goes in a most disconcerting manner. So it all comes together as a weird and wild and colorful volume in the richly varied adventures of Dido Twite.

Occult content advisory: this story is touched by more magic, of the animistic kind, than is usual for this series. A child is christened in the name of the island and its ancestral spirits, for example. Occult-sensitive readers, take note.

Midwinter Nightingale
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Age: 12+

To the best of my knowledge, at the time I write this, Midwinter Nightingale is the latest (2003) in a varicolored series of adventures called the Wolves Chronicles, stretching back to 1962's classic The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. And perhaps surprisingly, for those of you joining the program late, this is the first book in the series that actually has a werewolf in it.

I knew Remus Lupin. Remus Lupin was a friend of mine. And Mr. Baron Magnus Rudh, you're no Remus Lupin!

No, indeed. This werewolf is a very evil guy. And he isn't necessarily the scariest villain in this story, which pits Dido Twite, resourceful heroine of most of the series, against possibly the most chilling conspiracy to overthrow the King of this alternate-world, mid-1800's England.

This time, it isn't a Hanoverian plot. It's a Burgundian plot. For in the six or so years since the events of Dido and Pa, there have been lots of changes in Ms. Aiken's intriguing world. The only thing that hasn't changed is the blend of fantasy and history, with a flair for macabre, melodrama, and camp.

Good King Dick is coming to the end of his life, sadly, and too soon. But there are problems with the royal succession. Our dear friend Simon Bakerloo, 6th Earl of Battersea, has come a long way from the goose-boy who aspired to be a painter. But is he ready to take sole responsibility for the kingdom? It's hard enough keeping the king's safehouse a secret from the cabal of wicked villains who want to stick a (cough) royal bastard on the throne. But the murdering swine have taken over a boys' boarding school, kidnapped Dido (among others), hired Burgundian mercenaries, and committed various other perfidies. And what with a flood coming, and a hard winter on its heels, and the woods haunted by Russian bears and levitating Saxon rebels, and an obnoxious girl who wants to marry Simon, and a set of bad guys who will stop at nothing to get revenge and power, what can a cockney girl and a gentle painter do?

Lots, evidently. So much, in fact, that the last couple of chapters are apt to make your head spin. The final collision of all the forces set in motion, though carefully prepared ahead of time, seems to happen so suddenly and swiftly that it leaves you staggering. But there are many shocks, most of them gruesome, in this modern gothic. Also a lot of humor and wit (I love the way Dido thinks and speaks, epecially), and of course, a bit of unheralded poetry. Let me quote one brief bit...

The duchess certainly looked evil. She had a fat pale face and eyes that lacked any expression. They were like two pickled onions, Dido thought, and her mouth was a thin slit, painted bright red, like a line under the wrong answer to a sum.

...One final note. I thank many readers for telling me where I can locate copies of Is Underground and Cold Shoulder Road online. When I can afford the prices being asked, I will buy them & read them up for you. Till then, let my assurance that this series is consistently entertaining suffice to recommend them.

The Whispering Mountain
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Age: 12+

Owen Hughes is the son of the same Captain Hughes who accompanied Dido Twite on her adventures in The Cuckoo Tree and The Stolen Lake. Only just now, his father is missing, last seen doing his duty in the midst of an uprising in China. So Owen has found his way to his grandfather's home in the Welsh town of Pennygaff, where the old man (a retired naval captain himself) runs a museum of antiquities. Unfortunately, the elder Mr. Hughes does not altogether accept Owen as his grandson, so he is inclined to believe, when an ancient harp of gold goes missing from his collection, that Owen has taken it.

On the contrary, Owen is doing his best to save the harp from the real thieves, a couple of cockney bunglers named Bilk and Prigman, who set the whole misunderstanding in motion by kidnapping him and threatening his life. The thieves, in turn, work for a ghastly, yellow-eyed villain named the Marquess of Malyn, who is obsessed with gold, and fills his castle atop the "whispering mountain" with equal numbers of gold articles and instruments of torture. The Marquess believes the harp belongs to him. But he has more than the incompetence (and crookedness) of his hired agents to contend with. He is up against the clever and courageous Owen and his growing circle of admiring friends, the gypsy poet Tom Dando and his resourceful daughter Arabis, a wiry little monk named Brother Ianto, a hotblooded, Scottish-accented Prince of Wales, and an ancient tribe of little, hairy people who live under the mountain and work in gold.

Not to mention the prophecy:

"When the Whispering Mountain shall scream aloud
And the castle of Malyn ride on a cloud,
Then Malyn's lord shall have and hold
The lost that is found, the harp of gold.
Then Fig-hat Ben shall wear a shroud,
Then shall the despoiler, that was so proud,
Plunge headlong down from the Devil's Leap;
Then shall the Children from darkness creep,
And the men of the glen avoid disaster,
And the Harp of Teirtu find her master."

The story is everything you should expect from a Wolves Chronicle-an adventure crawling with memorable characters who speak in a variety of interesting dialects; the tale of a mild-mannered, bookish boy finding the valiant hero and leader within; a tale in which the evil get their just deserts while the good sometimes suffer terrible loss; a tale of comedy, horror, and a subtle tinge of magic, which can also be rather instructive.

It's hard to say whether this book is intended to be part of the "Wolves" series, which mainly deals with the exploits of Dido Twite, or is just another freestanding novel set in the same historical-England-with-a-fantasy-twist (in which James III is King when, in our world, Victoria was Queen). The edition published by Starscape does nothing to clarify the matter, since instead of listing the works of Joan Aiken, it just lists books published by Starscape. While I'm griping about it, I might as well also mention that the typesetting of this book is atrocious, at one point even disastrous. I hope another edition is coming!

Midnight Is a Place
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Age: 10+

This book is connected to the Wolves Series by the bleak setting of the industrial city of Blastburn, last heard from in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It shares the series’ running theme of good children, through the malice and greed of bad adults, being stripped of their wealth and privilege and forced to find their own way in the world.

In this story, the children in question are two orphans being raised as wards of Sir Randolph Grimsby, an unpleasant and rather troubled carpet tycoon. First there is Lucas Bell, the orphaned son of Grimsby’s partner, whom he is grooming to take over the business. However, the tutor Mr. Oakapple is doing the actual grooming; and for another thing, the business is in pretty bad shape. The factory is full of dangerous equipment constantly killing or maiming the children and adults who work there. The discontented employees are preparing to strike, and a band of thugs is running a protection racket. A tax official is preparing to entail the whole kit and kaboodle, as well.

Into Lucas’ lonely life comes, not the older boy companion he has long hoped for, but a spoiled little girl named Anna-Marie Murgatroyd who only speaks French, whose grandfather founded the Midnight Mill which Sir Randolph now owns, and whose father lost the Mill in a bet. The emotional scars surrounding all this history, not to mention the trouble alluded to before, builds to a blazing, fatal climax one cold winter night. Suddenly, Lucas and Anna-Marie are alone in the world, without a protector, a home, an income, or any prospects.

At first, to be sure, they don’t find Blastburn a very nice place to be starting from scratch. There is a lot of unpleasantness from gangs on the street, gangs in the Mill, an unpleasant landlady, and a nasty job picking garbage out of the sewer where Lucas is menaced by giant rats, man-eating pigs, and a co-worker who has a touch of homicidal mania. Plus, they are trying to pay for medical treatment for poor Mr. Oakapple, who was injured on the night of the...ahem. You’ll find out what.

Slowly the two children turn their midnight into day again, in spite of all the nasty people and the nasty forces at work in a nightmare of an industrial city gone bad. They find friends in unexpected quarters; they grow stronger and braver, and find ways to fight back; and they inspire other people to come forward to make guilty confessions and courageous stands.

Midnight Is a Place is full of spooky, nasty, creepy, and dangerous things; but in its shadows lurk things that are lovable, moving, uplifting, and true. This could be the best book by Joan Aiken.

The Cockatrice Boys
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Age: 12+

From the Wolves series, featuring Dido Twite, I had already come to regard Joan Aiken as a wonderful writer with a flair for colloquial British speech, humor, adventure, and the clash of titanic forces of good and evil. From Diana Wynne Jones' Deep Secret I had come to regard the Starscape label as being possibly the best-kept secret in young-adult fiction. Both of these impressions are confirmed by The Cockatrice Boys, a Starscape book by the daughter of American poet Conrad Aiken. Besides being a daringly original, funny, scary, and morally instructive book, it also contains one of the strongest statements of the purpose of fantasy stories and fairy tales:

"People need remind them that reality is not only what we can see or smell or touch. Reality is in as many layers as the globe we live on itself, going inwards to a central core of red-hot mystery, and outwards to unguessable space. People's minds need detaching, every now and then, from the plain necessities of daily life. People need to be reminded of these other dimensions above us and below us. Stories do that."
This story is about an invasion of monsters that brings civilization in Great Britain crashing down. These creatures, of unknown origin, come in many varieties from bycorns, footmonsters, kelpies, and trolls to snarks, gorgons, basilisks and telepods--this is only a partial listing, mind you. Nevertheless, they are grouped under the general term of Cockatrices, and it is to battle the Cockatrices that the Cockatrice Corps is formed. Armed with snark masks, kelpie knives and ray guns, they set out on the stellar-powered armored train Cockatrice Belle to battle the beasties and bring needed supplies to the scattered remnants of the British race.

Among the brave members of the crew is a young drummer-boy named Dakin, who finds his future- seeing cousin Sauna being held prisoner by a wicked old aunt in Manchester. This pair, together with a German-speaking dog (!) named Uli, become critical to the mission. For not only man-eating monsters are abroad; there are also traitors, witches, and foul powers of darkness at work, gathering their powers for a diabolical purpose to be revealed on King Edward's Day. It has something to do with a text penned by a medieval astrologer; and again something to do with two dolls that have a pin stuck through them; and again something to do with the cosmic battle between good and evil that even the Archbishop of Lincoln is hard-put to explain.

I've already said what I think of this book, but I want to add two more things. First, I really enjoyed the cover art by Gris Grimly. And second, I'm going to seek out other Starscape books, whose authors include some of the biggest names in sci-fi and fantasy, and whose titles look quite interesting!

Go Saddle the Sea
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Age: 12+

This classic from the author of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and The Whispering Mountain is the first installment in a trilogy about the travels and adventures of young Felix Brooke. Set in Spain, England, and France in the turbulent years after the defeat of Napoleon, they are highly informative books with a wealth of cultural and historical detail. But more importantly for you, they are sometimes spooky, sometimes romantic, always exciting stories about a remarkable young man.

We first find Felix at about age 12, living in the household of his late mother’s father in Villaverde, Spain. It is a cold home in more ways than one: the big, drafty house of a wealthy nobleman, crippled by war wounds and age, surrounded by whispering old women including Felix’s particularly spiteful Great Aunt Isadora. Felix himself is not much loved, due in part to his high-spirited pranks, but mostly due to his yellow-blond curls, which set him apart from everyone else and serve as a constant reminder of his late, unlamented British father. The only people who ever loved Felix — a stable hand and an old cook — are now dead. So Felix gathers up the few clues he has as to how to find his father’s family in England, and sets out to seek his fortune.

Ah, what a wonderful way to start an adventure! And such an adventure! Like none of the long-winded, often tediously moralistic stories of Felix’s day which began in much the same way, this story moves forward at speed, filled with a gallery of colorful characters, chilling and thrilling incidents, and memorable places. But more is afoot than just a series of separate things Felix experiences one after another. He becomes increasingly aware of a plot against him. He is on the run from people who think he knows the location of a buried treasure. In a series of informal but affectionate conversations with God, he becomes convinced of a divine purpose to his sufferings and travels. And through it all, he proves himself to be a lad of unusual quality.

The minute you put this book down, you will want to pick up its sequel, Bridle the Wind. So be sure to get the whole trilogy, concluding with The Teeth of the Gale.

Bridle the Wind
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Age: 12+

This second adventure of post-Napoleonic, English-Spanish boy-hero Felix Brooke picks up soon after Go Saddle the Sea ends. On his way home from England to Spain, after discovering his rich English grandfather and realizing that he wants to live with his slightly less rich Spanish grandfather after all, Felix is shipwrecked near a French monastery. A profoundly weird, supernatural occurrence sends him clean out of his senses soon afterward.

When he returns to himself months later, Felix has been living as a mute novice in the monastery, ruled by an abbot who himself is ruled by a terrifying, evil spirit. Now that he can speak, the abbot wants to question him about things Felix cannot remember, and punishes him viciously for not answering. Then an overpowering premonition leads Felix to save the life of a frail, mysterious boy named Juan — a boy whose fate is now caught between the increasingly irrational abbot and a band of brigands called the Mala Gente.

In a hair-raising nighttime escape, Felix rescues Juan and himself from the monastery, only to find himself committed to a perilous journey through the sharp Pyrenees, pursued by brigands and things worse than brigands. Everywhere they flee, everywhere they try to hide, the Mala Gente stick uncannily one step behind...and sometimes ahead! Mystery unfolds within mystery as Felix’s strength, courage, and resourcefulness are tested to their limit, and his deepening relationship with the strange boy Juan is not the least of the mysteries.

This 19th-century road adventure through Southern France and Northern Spain is full of music, poetry, and fascinating facets of history and folklore. It also has strong characters whose quest builds to a terrifying climax and ends with a staggering surprise. Heartbreaking yet hopeful, the conclusion of this book will guide your hand directly to the third book in the trilogy, The Teeth of the Gale.

The Teeth of the Gale
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Age: 12+

The third adventure of Felix Brooke finds him at age 18, studying at the University of Salamanca, and doing his best (on grandfather’s orders) to keep his nose out of the increasingly turbulent politics of post-Napoleonic Spain. It soon becomes a lot more difficult.

For a novice nun named Juana, who happens to be the love of Felix’s life, has requested his aid on behalf of her beautiful cousin Conchita. Conchita’s husband, an escaped political prisoner believed to be insane, has absconded with their children, and she requests Felix’s help getting them back. Felix agrees, but he soon realizes that there is more to this rescue mission than meets the eye. It has something to do with Spain’s vicious political rivalries, something to do with a fortune in money and property, and again something to do with a lost treasure, the location of which many people think Felix knows.

Getting through this adventure with his own neck intact will be hard enough, but Felix also has to find out what's the right thing to do and how to do it – even if it means helping an allegedly mad enemy of the state escape while surrounded by dangerous and desperate people. At the same time, he is tied in knots by his growing love for Juana, while his chances of being able to act on it seem to slip away a little more every day.

Felix is a very excellent young hero. All his misfortunes become an occasion for great adventure, and all his good fortune seems to be the least that he deserves – though, if I may offer one criticism of this book, I would say that Aiken comes down rather heavy with the “good fortune” end of things. At the end I almost wondered – mind you, I say “almost” – whether Aiken meant to be taken seriously, so neatly did she sew everything up. Yet at the same time, the final sentence of the book leaves you reeling, wondering whether another chapter or another book was intended.

Alas, we cannot ask; Ms. Aiken passed away in 2004. But even so, this is a very satisfying trilogy, beginning with Go Saddle the Sea and Bridle the Wind; possibly an even greater achievement than her award-winning series beginning with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.


thomasangela said...

I agree with everything whole heartedly! I recently purchased all of the wolves series I could find, since my local library seems to have divested themselves of all but a few (luckily they have the three I was unable to purchase, the IS books and Dangerous Games).

I have been trying to find out if Whispering Mountain is the only book on young Owen Hughes, because the story seems to allude to wonderful adventures the characters already went through. I was hoping these were told in another book, but have been unable to find anything!

Tracy said...

I, too am a fan of the Wolves series. I've read books 1-9 (#9 is Dangerous Games (the original title is Limbo Lodge), and have just received Midwinter Nightingale from a private seller in NC through alibris. Robbie, have you checked on this site? They've got several cheap copies of Is Underground and Limbo Lodge available...
I agree with you that Midnight Is A Place is one of her best works... This is one of the books I actually remember from middle school... I still remember my delight at the scene where the protagonist finds a jeweled saddle in the sewers!
Another favorite Aiken book of mine, is "The Five Minute Marriage." It is my favorite romance novel of all time; ironically, I read somwhere that Aiken penned it as a send-up of the regencies of Georgette Heyer et al, but it still reads rather straight...

lizza said...

Hi Robbie and friends, I'm Joan Aiken's daughter and am putting together a website for her and all her fans at which will hopefully be able to answer all your questions - do have a look! Thanks for your fantastic reviews - you must be some of the greatest Aiken enthusiasts ever! Any other questions you can send me via the site, I'd love to hear from you.