Posts Tagged ‘children’s books’

Imagine, if you will, a 19th Century England ruled by James III, popularly known as Good King Jim, and forever bedeviled by the Hanoverian supporters of Bonnie Prince George. It’s a world where wolves have slunk through the Channel tunnel to haunt the landscape, and over in New England a pink whale struggles to save its obsessed pursuer. In South America, Guinevere awaits the return of King Arthur, having foresightedly frozen the lake across which he is supposed to return and taken it with her when she fled the Saxons. Meanwhile, children are disappearing in the north of England, where the mysterious figure of Gold Kingy has declared independence from the south.

If any of this inspired lunacy sounds appealing, you owe it to yourself to look up Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles. Published between 1962 and 2005, the twelve books of The Wolves Chronicles are an example of the kind of children’s fantasies at which the English seem to excel: short, fast-paced, and madcap, and, if anything, even more appealing to adults than children.

The titles alone are enough to be alluring to those with even the shortest DNA sequence for appreciating poetry. Starting with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, they continue with Black Hearts in Battersea, working their way through titles like Nightbirds on Nantucket, The Stolen Lake, and Cold Shoulder Road to conclude in The Witch of Clatteringshaws. But this is hardly surprising, considering that Aiken is also the author of the lines, “Midnight is not a moment / Midnight is a place” – one of the best evocations of mystery and wonder ever written.

Besides all the fantasy elements and sheer poetry, what makes The Wolves Chronicles work so wildly well is Aiken’s Dickensian sense of place and plot. She not only uses plot elements like child labor and the street life of the London poor, but her stories are full of chance encounters with people who turn out to be long-lost sisters or orphan boys who are really the heirs to Dukes, and people thought dead turning up alive and well.

In other hands, this material could be a disaster, but Aiken carries it off with a high-handed disregard for logics or physics. In Aiken’s hands, it seems perfectly normal that plotters against the king might put Westminster Abbey on casters so they can roll it into the Thames during the coronation. Another plot involves a gun aimed at the king from across the Atlantic, but the best part is not the gun itself – which is first mistaken for a telescope or pipeline – but the fact that the local Americans are only made to care about the plot against the English monarch when they learn that the recoil will leave Nantucket adjacent to that den of iniquity called Atlantic City. Like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, this is silliness of the highest order, requiring that the writer never reveal that she knows how cracked it all is, and Aiken never lets on that she is anything except primly earnest.

If the series has a fault, it is that its two most frequently occurring characters, Dido and Is Twite, are too similar to one another. However, since both are resourceful and determined, that hardly matters. Besides, if Dido and Is sometimes blur together, there are always a handful of eccentric characters around them to keep things interesting, especially villains like the sinister but musical Pa Twite or the evil governess Miss Sleighcarp and the Hanoverian ambassador the Margrave of Nordmarck.

Currently, about a third of the series is out of print. Fortunately, each novel is self-contained, and Aiken is deft about summarizing what readers need to know about past events in the first few pages, so that having read each book’s predecessors is unnecessary.

Still, the unavailability of some of the titles is regrettable. Although some of the novels are stronger than others, all are masterpieces in miniature, light yet showing what fantasy can be at its finest.

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