Tim, a timid boy, follows Sarre, a would-be Chanter, into the world of Tallis where huge birds and animals are the means of transport, and where an evil Duke is trying to take over the kingdom. To make matters worse, an unpredictable wind brings spores which are fatal to humans and birds. Tim and Sarre, helped at first by cheerful scavengers called Teggers, team up with a group of roving merchants and minstrels called Gurneys. Helped by the traveller and warrior Hunter, the children hatch a plan to save the kingdom.
Really, the worst thing that can be said about this book is that it’s a charming and entertaining adventure in an imaginatively-populated fantasy land. It’s a shame that one can’t be much more enthusiastic than that. The impression one’s left with is that the author’s not really committed to his story and his characters, and so neither are we. Certainly there are colourful characters – the Chanters with their white magic, the Treggers in their friendly village, the travelling Gurneys with their characterful pack pigs, the evil Duke and his warlock henchman. But they’re really no more than that: colourful characters. The Chanters are girls and women with some innate magical ability which they use for good. Their counterparts are boys who become Warlocks, using magic for evil. The Chanters are the Swiss Army Knife of plot devices: one brews sleeping draughts and antidotes to poisoned arrows; another puts dogs to sleep and read people’s minds; another instills courage in a character and teaches him to hold his breath for ages; one has a shrinking pool! Sarre, the young girl Chanter, does most of the work as she and Tim travel around, having received a sort of mystical infusion of wisdom and skill from a dying Chanter. The effect is that Tim grows only a little, until close to the end when he becomes unexpectedly possessed of military prowess.
Although the plotting and characterisation is only so-so, there is much to be admired in the world and its peoples which the author has created. There is a mixture of natural harmony and medieval simple living enhanced by decent sanitation, courtesy of Victorian engineering which works mysteriously efficiently in this other world, while gunpowder works well enough for fireworks but not enough for guns! Certainly the author’s keen to display the virtues of his characters right from the start: Tim is hard-working and well-mannered, and when he comes across a little high-handedly with Sarre, she points this out and he apologises; someone comes across a diary, but realises it would be wrong to read it; people are generous with their hospitality; Hunter, married to a woman he fell in love with in Tallis, spends years discovering how to return there, and finds that she has remained faithful to him. There is little unnecessary killing, and a character who is at first sneering and snobbish is later rescued and redeems himself in battle defending the king.
There are a few episodes which might bear explaining. In one, an army of children is used by one side to attack the other with poisoned arrows. It’s explained that the children have had their minds damaged by the Duke’s Warlock, and the Chanters are able to take them home and repair them. At a later point, this same Warlock has discovered how to transplant the minds of prisoners into clockwork mannequins, in a slightly grotesque plan which doesn’t really go anywhere, and once more, the Chanters are to the rescue. Finally, one of the Duke’s methods of punishment is to tie prisoners to giant balloons which are then released to fly away. Tim and Sarre come across some of the fallen remains of the prisoners in the mountains near the Crack. A bit gruesome. In summary, it’s an entertaining enough story if you don’t expect too much depth. A young man grows up a little and has some experiences he wouldn’t otherwise have had, and everyone behaves themselves quite well. Except the Duke.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.