Monday, May 2, 2016

Cold Shoulder Road

Cold Shoulder Road
by Joan Aiken
Recommended Ages: 11+

Following Joan Aiken's "Wolves Chronicles," which I have also seen described as the "James III saga," is a bit challenging. A couple of the books have different titles in the U.S. than in the U.K. (Examples: Limbo Lodge=Dangerous Games; Is=Is Underground.) The fourth book in publication order, a prequel called The Whispering Mountain, is routinely left out of numbered lists of the canonincal series, which may lead to confusion about which book is the nth in the series. Midnight Is a Place is treated as a completely separate work, even though it shares the same alternate-history period-fantasy world as this series. And I've mentioned before that the title Is is a sovereign internet search killer. I had no luck finding a copy of it until I came across the omnibus edition of Is and this book: canonically the ninth, publicationally the tenth or eleventh book in what I believe is one of the great classic series of young-adult adventure novels.

Like Is, Cold Shoulder Road takes the point of view of Is (or Isabett) Twite, younger sister of Dido Twite, who left the home she shared with oldest sister Penny in Blackheath Edge, Kent, to honor a dying uncle's wish and find her vanished cousin Arun. Find him she did, in the form of a boy who thought he was a cat and lived accordingly. While recovering from the trauma that drove him into cathood, Arun has gradually reverted to boyhood. But when Is and Arun arrive in Cold Shoulder Road, where he last left his mother Ruth Twite and the strange, silent sect she belonged to, they find the whole street deserted. Is worries the shock might send Arun back to chasing mice and biting people's ankles. But the deeper the two cousins dig, the more serious the situation appears. For not only has the Sect upped stakes and moved to the next town up the coast, but Ruth has personally disappeared, and taken somebody else's child with her.

This is no ordinary kidnapping, though. Ruth seems to have run away with a child who was entrusted to the townsfolk in an exchange of hostages with a vicious gang of smugglers, known as the Merrie Gentry. Specializing in sneaking loads of mammoth tusks, used for making snuffboxes, through a railway tunnel under the English Channel, the Merrie Gentry make gruesome examples of anyone who crosses them. Before you can say, "Croopus!" Is and Arun are in the thick of things, with a sneaky retired admiral on one side, a mesmerizing cult leader on the other, and such oddities abroad as a frigate parked in the crotch of a chestnut tree, a kite-flying rider on a two-wheeled machine, a travelers' rest area under the shelter of standing stones, a garden hanging over the edge of a cliff, and a bunch of people who can communicate by thought waves. There is a buried treasure, a sinister string of jewels, a disagreeable child who proves worth the trouble, a trip to the dentist that proves nastier than expected, and a swarm of spiders the size of small dogs.

I don't think you will ever encounter a similar combination of villainy, magic, heroism, and weirdness if you read a thousand books a year for a thousand years. Save yourself the trouble and read this book, and all its companion books. They are funny, thrilling, heart-warming, spine-chilling, over-the-top fantastic by every definition of the word, and written by a prose master who sneaks her lyricism in under the cover of a quaint dialect and a curtly straightforward tone of voice. In almost any other author's hands, a character like Is (or Dido before her) would soon become tiresome. I look forward to my next outing with them.

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