Alison Croggon The Gift:
the first book of Pellinor
Walker Books 2004
Maerad, a young female slave in a squalid village, is rescued by Cadvan who, as a bard, recognises her latent magic powers; taking her on a journey overshadowed by ever increasing peril and malevolence he begins her magical apprenticeship as she starts to gain an inkling of her significance in the world of Annaren. At first glance the well-worn trope of Orphan revealed as the Chosen One with the potential to upset the current world order might seem rather humdrum and, well, ho-hum. But this opening novel of an inevitable fantasy quartet by Australian poet Alison Croggon is a cut above the ordinary.
A second reading of The Gift allowed me time to savour more fully the sensual nature of Croggon’s writing without the distraction of the narrative’s headlong dash. Everyday food, colours, clothes, landscapes, objects are all described with the poet’s eye for detail and (for the pleasures in life such as warm baths) obvious relish. There was also more opportunity to absorb the intricacies of the extracts from her created world’s poetry, with their images, alliterations, rhyme and metre.
Leisure also brought more understanding of the details of this world. Things like names took on more significance. Many Annaren names, especially those of the more virtuous, seemed to relate to Welsh, such as Cai, Cadvan (for modern Welsh Cadfan), Maerad (modern Mared), Brin (for Bryn), Idris and Owan (for Owain or Owen). The more sinister characters were more distinctly Old Testament in tone, with names like Likud and the substitution of the letter ‘k’ for hard ‘c’ found in virtuous characters (typically as with Enkir).
The slow pace that some readers have complained about perfectly reflects the journey, both physical and personal, that the young Bard has to undertake from her slavery to the recognition of her innate powers. Yes, there are echoes of The Lord of the Rings – what post-Tolkien fantasy isn’t indebted to it? – but Maerad is more proactive and more reflective and her character is rather more rounded than, say, Frodo’s. Croggon has publicly acknowedged the influence of Tolkien’s essay on fairy stories on her Pellinor story, and there is the same love of words and invented languages, but there is a real sense that her characters drive the plot rather than the plot driving the characters as is the case with The Lord of the Rings.
My only real reservation is over the conceit that the Pellinor series is based on documented events happening any time over 10,000 years ago (in reality around the end of the last Ice Age) that may or may not be something to do with Atlantis. I think the storyline works better without this distraction, though I appreciate that this helps to create a learned context for Pellinor history and culture; I accept too that I may be missing a nuance or two here.
While The Gift doesn’t end with the conventional cliffhanger there still remains pleasurable anticipation for what is to come in the succeeding volumes. A final note of praise is also due for the finely drawn and lettered maps by Niroot Puttapipat which add immeasurably to the joy of revisiting Pellinor.
In anticipation of a prequel, The Bone Queen, appearing any time soon, reviews of Alison Croggon’s four Pellinor books will be reposted here in sequence and in rapid succession; they first appeared in January and February 2013