Saturday, January 5, 2008

Steve Augarde

The Various
by Steve Augarde
Recommended Age: 12+

Generations of children, particularly English ones, have entertained fantasies about little winged people living at the bottom of the garden. Midge Walters isn’t really one of those children, but that’s all right. The little winged people at the bottom of her garden are no fantasy.

Actually it’s not the bottom of her garden. It’s a hill topped by an impenetrable forest, in the middle of the derelict farm owned by Midge’s uncle. She has gone to stay with Uncle Brian for a few weeks while her mother is on tour with the orchestra. The last time she was there was when she was born, and the last time she saw Uncle Brian was when she was almost too young to remember, but even though she’s a sensible city girl, she takes to Mill Farm like a fish to water. Right off, it feels like home.

But nearby Howard’s Hill is home to a different sort of people. The five tribes of Various live there – from the winged Ickri huntsmen to the cave-dwelling Troggles. Their small world is getting smaller and harder to live in, as the soil grows thin and the winters harsh. Big people – Gorji giants, as the Various call them – surround them, and their last bit of non-Gorji land is failing. What will become of them?

The winged horse Pegs sets out on a perilous mission to find out if there is a place nearby where the Various could hunt, harvest, or (failing all else) move. But a mishap on his return journey traps him under a piece of abandoned farm machinery. And who is it that finds him, frees him, and heals him? Yes — Midge. Pegs is a very magical horse, and he knows somehow that Midge has a role to play in saving the Various. Midge, on the other hand, knows her uncle’s plans for the land where the Various live. So Pegs makes a fateful decision to bring Midge into his secret world, and share her news with the leaders of the five tribes.

It is a fateful decision because no Gorji has seen the inside of that forest since the days of nearly forgotten legend. It is fateful because of a band of two-foot-tall, winged cutthroats whose deadly enmity turns Midge’s fairy tale into a life-or-death drama. Add a pair of young lovers from opposite ends of the tribal pecking order...a daft old queen and the explosively temperamental General who really rules the Various...a pair of cousins who show up earlier than expected, one of them nicer and the other nastier than one would hope...a spooky, “witchi” woman (complete with green skin and poisoned darts)...and a vicious barnyard cat who isn’t above snacking on little men...and what begins as an errand of mercy, winds up in a thrilling battle for survival.

Plus, there’s plenty of room for more exciting adventures in this world daringly created by a sometimes jazz musician, animation artist, and pop-up-book illustrator. In fact, the ending really leaves you panting for more. This book is a fascinating new take on the old tales about little people at the bottom of the garden. It is a thought-provoking, well-written, and exciting story. And it is the first book in a trilogy! How can you beat that?

by Steve Augarde
Recommended Age: 12+

The second book in the trilogy that began with The Various is an unusual sort of sequel. Instead of picking up where the first book left off, Celandine goes back several decades, to the early 20th century, when Europe was on the brink of the First World War. But in a really weird way, it does connect with the events of The Various, particularly as the farm girl Celandine Howard has unsettling visions of another girl who will live on the same farm...the better part of a century later.

These aren’t Celandine’s only weird experiences, though. She senses a dog is dying merely by touching it. She has unsettling premonitions, and shows signs of having the healing touch. All of these things make her a social outcast, a target of bullies, and an object of suspicion to the teachers and staff at the boarding school Celandine is forced to attend after a set-to with her governess that, believe me, you would rather read for yourself than have summarized to you. Things are nearly as bad at home, where her father and oldest brother are unsympathetic, her Austrian-born mother is ostracized by a society at war with her homeland, and her closest brother is rushing headlong into danger on the battlefield.

With all these things against her, it is no wonder that Celandine keeps her strangest gift a secret. For she also knows about the “little people” who live on the wooded hill on her family’s farm. To the Various, Celandine is a fearsome giant, the only one of her race they have ever befriended. When the terrible events in Celandine’s life trigger a major crisis, her secret becomes her refuge. But just when it seems she could go on living with her earthy little friends, another crisis comes from outside, one that will force Celandine to choose between facing her problems in the outside world and being completely destroyed. For a long-lost tribe of winged warriors is about to arrive and stir things up on Howard’s Hill, led by a crafty devil who is willing to shed any amount of blood necessary to get the power that he wants.

Once again, Augarde has woven a fascinating blend of adventure, tragedy, terror, beauty, and magic, this time adding a thread of historical color. It is interesting, and at times agonizing, to experience the fear, anger, hatred, and anxiety of a country at war, a page in history that has been overshadowed by more recent events. The misery of Celandine’s school days is a study in changing attitudes toward childhood discipline and psychic powers, and of the unchanging nature of human beings—be they little girls or little people—when they are placed together in a tension-filled social structure.

But whether the setting is a rigidly regulated girls’ dormitory or a wild forest full of otherworldly creatures, this book delivers more than just social criticism. It is full of magical marvels, unsettling weirdness, and nerve-wracking suspense. It is peppered with luscious vistas, gruesome shocks, snicker-inducing pranks, and mysteries that linger even at the end of the tale, so that you’re glad there’s a third book coming. Plus, Celandine is full of rich, lively characters, memorable dialogue, and even a bit of romance tinted with a touch of sepia-tone melancholy. If you were to read this as the first book in the series, you would find it full of intriguing foreshadowings of “things to come” in the latter-day adventures of The Various. And it is also charged with enough storytelling energy to send the trilogy’s third book into orbit!

Winter Wood
by Steve Augarde
Recommended Age: 12+

Mr. Augarde's publishers were kind enough to send me a complimentary hardcover of this book, which doesn't seem to have been released yet. This is one of the exciting things about being a bigshot book reviewer. Another exciting thing is seeing a talented author-illustrator's first great creative achievement come to completion. For this book concludes the trilogy that began with The Various and Celandine, finishing a uniquely imagined story arc full of creepy, ancient mystery and modern thrills and chills.

I hear tell this series is going to be packaged as "The Touchstone Trilogy" in future. What is this Touchstone? It is a thingy that was broken into two pieces long, long ago, in a quarrel between two tribes of "little people" who lived on a high, wooded hill in Somerset, England. The winged Ickri took the round, red Stone that had strange, truth-telling powers, and went out into the wide world. The ground-dwelling Naiad kept the Orbis, a device that together with the Stone enabled their people to travel between worlds. They stayed put and flourished into four tribes: the Wisp fisherfolk, the cave-dwelling Tinklers and Troggles, and Naiad farmers. Many years later the Ickri returned, an aggressive tribe bent on conquest - and to keep the Orbis from them, the Tinklers entrusted it to the safekeeping of a Gorji maid - that is, a human girl named Celandine Howard, who had come to live among them in the desperate months after her brother's death in World War I.

Ninety years have passed. The girl who lives in Celandine's bedroom in the farmhouse below the little people's hill is called Midge Walters, a great-great-niece of Celandine, and another friend of the little people. Now the history of the Various folk on Howard's Hill has arrived at its final crisis. Only if the enmity between the Ickri and the Tinklers cease - only if the two halves of the Touchstone be brought together again - can the Various survive. Trapped betwen the threat of starvation and danger from the world of men, they have no choice but to leave Howard's Hill.

But not all will follow the lead of the Ickri steward Maglin in his plans to migrate to richer hunting grounds - where they can both hunt and be hunted. Nor do all believe the strange lore of the Touchstone that can make them Travelers again - in spite of the witchi presence of the ancient crone Maven the Green. And of greatest concern, no one really knows where the Orbis is now. All their hopes hang on Midge, and on the confused memories of a very, very old lady who turns up in a retirement home several miles away.

That's just the set up for this rich, complex fantasy. Throw in some danger from a pair of knee-high murderers, a terrifying fight for survival for a couple of star-crossed lovers, some weird dreams and hints of telepathic powers, and a character's true identity long concealed and at last revealed, and you have the adventure in which the heroines of both previous books play a part. There are deadly struggles, heroic saves, heartstopping surprises, a terrifying monster (albeit one that rises to the surface very briefly), a dangerous game of political brinkmanship, an eerie moment of recognition between two people who have never actually met before, some touching goodbyes, some signs of Midge's family moving on with their lives, and a bit of humor to lighten the atmosphere when it's really needed.

The climax of the story demonstrates that Augarde understands the word "catharsis" - even if he's the only one here who does. (Look it up after you read this book. You'll agree.) It is the moment of supreme tension in which the crisis of the Various will be decided one way or the other: for conflict and death, or for reconciliation and life. How they get to that point and where they go from there, I leave to you to find out. Just be aware that this very definitely is the end of the series. Expect a wistful and final parting.

And while I'm in cautionary mode, let me also mention that this book carries a distinct spiritual worldview. Readers who are sensitive to religious content may want to prepare for the streak of Hindu/New Age thought that runs through this book, particularly toward the end. This fantasy is ultimately ruled by the concept of individuals being part of a world soul, or moving from one life to another until they are practically one with everything. Some may not be concerned about this, or even be interested in it, and may wonder why I even bring this up. But as much as I enjoyed this book, I can't shut off the Christian theologian in me as one flips a light-switch; so, yes, I wrinkled my nose at the spiritual backdrop that was increasingly revealed behind all this book's goings-on. Which made the down-to-earth practicality of the book's final words a special treat for me.

Take my advice: enjoy this book, knowing that this rebirth stuff is there; then notice it or dismiss it, like it or lump it as you will. Then close the book and be satisfied with the work Mr. Augarde has done, and done well.

Regarding the spirtualism of the Various tribes, I can see that this has been something that has jarred with your own beliefs, as evinced in the final paragraph of your otherwise very positive review. I think it would be a shame if this last paragraph was the part that readers carried away with them, or if they got the impression that I was preaching a doctrine that ran counter to Christian belief. I'd like to make it clear, to you at least, that I'm doing no such thing.

With the Various I felt that I had three choices: I could give them no spiritual life whatsoever - which would have been shallow and unrealistic. I could have given them Christian beliefs - which would have been laughable, and possibly offensive to Christians. Or I could have given them the kind of spiritual paganism that put them at one both with nature and the universe - in the the 'green man' tradition, I suppose. This last seemed the most natural, and the most in keeping with their current existence as forest dwellers, their former existence(s) as 'travellers', or indeed as 'aliens' as Midge believes them to be.

My own assumption all along is that Midge and her family are likely to be Christian, brought up Cof E, as indeed I was. The beliefs of the Various are not necessarily the beliefs of the author, but rather an alternative and perhaps more primitive view of life and the universe. If I've 'preached' anything in these books it has been tolerance, I suppose, a willingness to try and see the world through the eyes of others. Our nations, cities, streets and schools are riven by the clash of cultures and religious beliefs. There can never be unity, but there can be tolerance and mutual respect. I hope my aims in trying to demonstrate this haven't been misunderstood.

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