Let children be the judge

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Sarah Prineas The Magic Thief
Quercus 2009 (2008)

With a recommendation from Diana Wynne Jones (‘I couldn’t put it down. Wonderful, exciting stuff’) The Magic Thief (the first in a series with the same name and consequently re-titled Stolen) challenges the reader to dare contradict such a distinguished fantasy writer. Bravely, I’m going to try.

Yes, I too couldn’t put it down. Well, actually I did, but only to catch up on some sleep, but at nearly 400 pages that’s to be expected. The action pulled you along, aided by the almost breathless short sentences of both narrative and speech, and the manageable lengths of chapters, around ten pages on average and broken up by illustrations and change of narrator. The vocabulary, despite the odd Latin-influenced term, is expertly aimed at an audience aged around 10 or 11 and that target readership is the best to judge its success.

But this older reader is not so sure it totally succeeds in terms of plot and motivation. Connwaer (“Conn”, a homonym clue to the nature of his calling) is the young thief of the title, and comes across as variously both naive and knowing above his years, often at the same time. Conversely the adults, especially the wizard Nevery, often come across as stupid and blinkered despite their experience and learning. Now, while as humans we all preserve this dichotomy within ourselves, the characters in the story, for all that they are so distinctively described, frequently appear pantomime or fairytale archetypes with little or no subtlety. It may be deliberately so on the part of the author but such a ploy may limit the novel’s power to become a classic.

Enough cavilling. What about the world the characters find themselves in? Here Prineas is rather more successful even if not totally convincing. The town of Wellmet is delineated on a map which helps to locate the action, and there is a generalised Victorian or at least Dickensian feel to the buildings and situations — even if it’s unusual for a town to rely on magic that’s alarmingly dwindling day by day. Prineas shows a great love of all the accidentals in her magical world, from her coded runes to tasty treats, from the nature of Wellmet’s magic to the concept of the wizard’s locus magicalicus, taking in misery eels along the way. While elements are familiar from the recent store of children’s magical fantasy, the way they are put together is often original and compelling, and has clearly created the foundation for the sequels.

Is it wonderful, exciting stuff as Diana Wynne Jones declares? Well, I certainly was captivated; but whether I would be in a hurry to re-read it is a different matter. A classic it’s not, but as a diverting read the best judges might be my grandchildren.

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5 thoughts on “Let children be the judge

  1. With all the other factors so favourable, it seems a pity that it probably falls short of becoming one of the classic series.
    There is a temptation, when writing for a young audience, to overdo the simplicity of language and underdo complexity of characterization and plot. It is always a delicate balance.

    1. It is a delicate balance, isn’t it, Col. You certainly can’t please all of the people all of the time but I feel classic tales appeal to a wide audience because there is something to satisfy everyone at some level. Even picture books — those that stand the test of time as well as the instant successes — achieve their status because adults love the words and pictures as much as the children they’re reading them to.

  2. You’re so right about the balance in providing richness for both child-readers and for the adults who read to them and with them and often buy the books for them. I tend to think that comes to down to wit – in pictures, words, characterisation or invention, a liveliness in the author’s view of the world, and good observation every time. This will show in even the tiniest detail in an illustration which may be the thing we become very fond of and look for every time. And you can’t beat an author with a love of language and a trust in the ability of the readership to cope with it if it’s well-handled. Not every children’s classic has wit, though, some of them have wonder instead…ah, well, bang goes my theory.

    1. Wit and wonder — now that sounds like a winning combination!

      It’s interesting that our grandchildren like many of the same picture books our own kids liked when young, and that many have an idyllic country setting such as we have now: The Lion in the Meadow springs to mind but there are many others. Or it may be what we liked reading to them…

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