Alison Croggan The Riddle Walker Books Ltd 2005
Maerad and her mentor, the bard Cadvan, must solve a confusing riddle if evil is to be averted, and Maerad herself appears to be part of that riddle and its solution. To begin to get answers she has to travel to the far north, across snow and ice and sea, with all the accompanying dangers, from humans, nature, and the supernatural. The task seems insuperable, especially when laid on such young shoulders, and in such a hostile world it seems increasingly difficult to know who to trust. And all she has with her is the lyre she inherited from her mother, an instrument which has an integral part to play in the drama that is unfolding.
Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots suggests that the more different archetypal narratives a novel includes the richer it becomes (Booker admires The Lord of the Rings for this), and on this basis Croggon’s Pellinor series must be rich indeed. The Riddle includes the themes of the Quest, Overcoming the Monster, Tragedy and Voyage and Return, while it is only a matter of time and two more novels before we must surely encounter Rags to Riches, Comedy (in the classical sense) and Rebirth. On this understanding alone The Riddle is very satisfying, even as a middle volume in a sequence.
But novel writing is more than just a matter of narrative structure. First and foremost must come characterisation. Maerad, the young heroine of the tale, would, in a modern context, be just another petulant teenager, a trait which some reviewers have found annoying but is here absolutely right, not just for plot reasons but because that’s exactly what teenagers are normally about. While she is the Chosen One with innate mysterious powers (and you could argue that this is an annoying motif in itself), she still has to rely on her human resourcefulness, her stubbornness, her quick-wittedness and her physical strength. I liked also the roundedness of many of the other characters, even those who appear for such a short time, and even those who don’t support Maerad’s cause.
Other important elements in a story are a sense of place and time, and here Croggon has thought long and hard about the nature of her secondary world. The journey Maerad takes is one we take too, from cold to warmth, from mountains to plains and from habitation to habitation, because her descriptions give us exactly what we require to imagine and sensually feel ourselves there. There is also a clear sense of the passage of time, marked by key dates in the changing seasons (the book ends on midwinter’s day, for example) and Maerad’s monthly periods arriving at the time of the full moon.
Finally, Croggon’s theme is about words (as the title of the book hints). Poetry (real poetry, mind you, not doggerel verse) suffuses both prose and song in her text, recounted in English; and for the linguist too there is much delight in her creation of the languages of Pellinor: the names of peoples, of things, of places, of concepts. And let us not forget the crucial dialogues that Maerad has with key figures in the story; for those who like their fantasy dished up with lashings of action this may be a weakness, but for those who love words, the to-and-fro of conversations and the subsequent conflicts or resolutions that arise from them this must surely be a strength.
A word about Cadvan: as a wizard figure he here has resonances with both Gandalf and Dumbledore, though it is clear that we are to think of him, despite the discrepancy between the aging of Bards and ordinary mortals, as a relatively young man. Like those other two wizards of modern writing he too disappears, and like them his dramatic loss through violence must be felt deeply by the reader, but it is for the reader to find out whether the loss is temporary, as with Gandalf, or permanent, as with Dumbledore.
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