Joan Aiken: Is
Red Fox 1993 (1992)
Young Is Twite promises a dying uncle that she will investigate what had happened to her cousin Arun after he had run away to London. In tracing his route to what he thought was Playland she instead finds a totalitarian regime in which the London children induced to escape to a land of plenty are instead forced to work in iron foundries, potteries or coal mines. Will these innocents manage to escape from their slavery before an impending natural disaster overtakes them?
Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, her saga of an alternative world and 19th-century history, became as dark as it got when she wrote Is (published as Is Underground in North America). She had always been fierce in her opposition to child labour, which she had already explored in previous Chronicles, but now she had researched working conditions in Yorkshire mines and her indignation will have blazed anew.
But Is isn’t all doom and gloom: the story is peppered with rhymes and riddles and peopled with quirky but sympathetic characters; this being essentially a fantasy, we are also entertained with the notion that individuals, and especially children, may have the ability to communicate without the need for speech.
As well as presenting a inventive storyline this novel draws from a rich literary tradition and borrows freely from legends and from history. Motifs and factual details adorn every page: Arthurian tropes and Breton legends of the sunken land of Ys — Parliamentary acts outlawing child labour — myths about the Land of Cockaigne — the 1991 eruption of the Icelandic volcano Hekla — the Holderness peninsula to the east of Hull — the opening of Euston railway terminus in 1837 — folklore about witchcraft — they all jostle for attention. It makes for a complex narrative which will either delight the reader or thoroughly confuse; indeed there are some for whom the Chronicles, and especially this instalment, are just too diffuse and overwhelming. For me the complexity is part of what makes it a marvellous read.
But make no mistake, the storytelling’s the thing and Is Twite is the maze-treader to lead us through the labyrinthine twists and turns of the plot. In the guise of Gold Thingy (a figure inspired by an early poem written by Joan’s older sister) our heroine’s wicked uncle Roy Twite is as unscrupulous and cruel a villain as you’d ever hope not to meet, and his threats of violence are in some ways more graphic than has been the case with previous antagonists we’ve encountered. But it’s reassuring to know that if Is follows the expected pattern not only will there be a cast list of intriguing individuals to be introduced to but also we’re alwlmost guaranteed the archvillain will be due a spectacular downfall, figurative and maybe actual.
Be prepared for heartache: there are deaths here, some of them thoroughly undeserved, one in particular which will affect the progress of subsequent instalments in the series. For all the synchronicities and near-impossible coincidences this fantasy does reflect reality in this respect — the good may die young even if the bad live a longer life than they ought to by rights.
As has been the case with previous novels in the Wolves Chronicles there will be a series of associated posts looking at people and places, history, geography and themes to look forward to (or maybe to dread)