Monday, March 30, 2015

The Whispering Mountain by Joan Aiken, 1968

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In the small town of Pennygaff, where Owen has been sent to live after his mother’s death, a legendary golden harp has been found. Knowing of the prophesy of the Harp of Teirtu, Owen must prevent the magic harp from falling into the evil clutches of its reputed owner, the sinister and diabolical Lord Mayln. But it won’t be easy. Owen and his friend Arabis are plunged into a hair-raising adventure of intrigue, kidnapping, exotic underground worlds, savage beasts...even murder.
For only too late will Owen learn that Lord Mayln will stop at nothing to have the golden harp.
(240 pages)

I love Joan Aiken's books so much. Every year or so I go on an Aiken kick where I read a bunch of books in her amazing Wolves series. The thing about those books is that they always look so boring from the cover description and synopsis, but are actually amazing books full of humor, terror, mischief, and clever plot twists that make things fun. You always know the young main characters won't come to any real harm, but anyone else is fair game. Aiken's books are written for a less sheltered generation of children, where murder and terror are part of the story. This serves to increase the tension, and sweeten the reward.

Now for this specific book. I picked it up for a quarter at a flea market, very excited to find a Joan Aiken I hadn't read yet. I read it in one sitting (staying up a bit later than I really should have, more from an unwillingness to go to sleep than any driving desire to finish the book), and - well, and then I fell asleep. It was good, but it wasn't exactly thrilling.

This is a book with many pieces and people and plot devices, all rolled together in a way that makes things seem ridiculously complicated at first, but actually winds up fitting together perfectly in the end. There is a father and daughter team of gypsies, a nerdy-yet-inwardly-strong young boy, two nasty thieves, a prince, an evil Marquess (It took me a while to get it straight in my head that this is a male term), a monk, a foreign Seljuk (apparently some sort of Rajah), a bunch of dwarf-people, and many more wildly different characters. This is a story told in bits and pieces, where everyone pursues the truth from a different angle and then at the end of the book figure out the whole picture by talking to everyone else. This  is a very clever way of telling the tale, because there are many "mini books" inside the big book, with the various main characters ducking and weaving throughout the stories of the other characters.

However, it's the story itself that just doesn't really appeal to me. Aiken is a genius at taking seemingly worn-out tales and making them fresh, but it just didn't happen for me with this one. Arabis is like a mix between Aiken's other main female characters, Sophie and Dido, and I have to say I like the others better. Ditto for Owen - I liked him, but I like Simon better. According to Goodreads this is book 0 in the Wolves chronicles (does that mean it's a prequel?). I don't really see how it fits in with the others at all, except for its similar time-setting. I love the later books far, far more, from the wonderful Wolves of Willoughby Chase that I first read in lower elementary school, to Black Hearts in Battersea, which is one of my later-discovered favorites.

If you love old-fashioned adventures full of danger, excitement, humor, and compelling characters, then I wholeheartedly recommend you read this series. I'm sure that many would like this book, but for me at least it just felt a bit too ordinary - and I kept getting flashbacks to George McDonald's The Princess and the Goblins. If you're a fan of the series and haven't gotten around to this one yet, then by all means read it. It's not that it's bad by any definition of the word - it's just not as good as many of the other books in the series. If you have never read a Joan Aiken and you want to, then start with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or Black Hearts in Battersea. Trust me, you'll be happy you did.

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