Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Tales from the Bookshelf, Entry One: Magyk

It's a marvelous thing, to open a book and immediately be transported back to when you first read it. The smell of old paper rises as soon as you part the pages and all of a sudden you're back where you were when you read those words for the very first time.

When I first read Angie Sage's Magyk I was eleven years old, lying on a blow-up mattress on the hardwood floor of my new bedroom in the house my Dad was renting with his new partner. I didn't even have a bed yet, and I lay just above the floor of what was really a small dining room and did what I always do: opened a book. By the light of a lamp that sat on the floor near my head I was carried away in a small boat, scudding over the moonlit river on a breathless chase to escape the Hunter.

Over the course of this summer I'll be reading back through all my old series, taking myself back and reviewing them here armed with a combination of nostalgia and fresh perspective. I won't just tell you what the books are about, but what their strengths and weaknesses are, how they compare to what I remember and what I would think of them if I was reading them now for the first time.

Magyk is the first in a seven-part series about a young boy named Septimus Heap. Except Septimus dies as an infant in the first chapter, on the same night his father Silas finds a baby girl abandoned in the snow. The second chapter forms a bridge between the events of the first and the narrative proper which begins in the third, spanning the years between Sarah and Silas Heap's adoption of mysterious baby Jenna and the morning of her tenth birthday, when ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand arrives to tell her that she is the Princess, daughter of the Castle's Queen who was assassinated on the orders of evil necromancer DomDaniel. With Jenna's identity discovered by the Supreme Custodian, DomDaniel's puppet ruler in the Castle, Jenna must come with Marcia to the safety of the Wizard Tower, centre of Magyk in the Castle. While the rest of the Heaps (Sarah, Silas and their six sons) go into hiding in the Forest, Marcia takes Jenna to the Wizard Tower to keep her safe, as she is the only thing preventing DomDaniel from returning to take over the Castle. Outside the Tower they find a young boy, forced into guard duty as a member of the Young Army, unconscious in the snow and carry him inside. When well-meaning but bumbling Silas shows up determined to give Jenna her birthday present and brings her youngest elder brother Nicko and excitable wolfhound Maxie along, the cast of the following chase is complete.

Magyk is full of memorable moments, and the group of six's escape through the rubbish chute after Marcia incapacitates an assassin sent for Jenna is one. Emerging from the chute in a rubbish dump near the pontoon cafe of Sarah Heap's friend Sally Mullin, the strange group know the Hunter will soon be after them, and flee downriver in a canoe lent to them by Sally. Through all of this Boy 412, as he is called for in the Young Army no-one is allowed a name, remains quiet and petrified, believing he has been kidnapped by mad wizards whom he has been indoctrinated to believe are the Enemy. Evading the Hunter after a tense river chase, the group seek safety in the home of Silas's Aunt Zelda, an elderly White Witch who is Keeper on Draggen Island, an egg-shaped island in the Marram Marshes. This is where most of the book is set, as winter sets in and the Big Freeze makes travel almost impossible. When the group are contacted by a Message Rat named Stanley, sent by Sarah with the news that Simon, the eldest Heap child, has gone missing, Silas sets off back to the Castle to find him but has no luck and spends the winter holed up in a tavern inside the Castle walls, kept company by the ghost of Alther Mella, both his and Marcia's former tutor as ExtraOrdinary Wizard who died trying to protect the Queen on the night Jenna was born. The misfortunes of several of the characters are offset by the whimsical tone of Jenna, Nicko and Boy 412's adventures on Draggen Island, where Aunt Zelda keeps them fed mostly with cabbage and owns a pet cat named Bert who has transformed into a duck. Another of my favourite scenes is when Boy 412, still silent but beginning to realize that he may have been rescued rather than kidnapped, falls down a hole while wandering with the other two through the fog and discovers a gold ring on the floor of a tunnel a-la The Hobbit. The Dragon Ring, as it is called, does not turn him invisible glows brightly when he needs it to and is featured on the cover of the book.

The novel's climax approaches when Stanley the Message Rat is made involuntary party to a trap set for Marcia, bringing a message to the cottage on Draggen Island that Silas wants to meet her which was in fact sent by the Supreme Custodian. When Marcia is captured and thrown in a deep dungeon, DomDaniel can finally return and claim his old title of ExtraOrdinary Wizard. He dispatches the Hunter to Draggen Island to eliminate the Heaps.

Nicko, Jenna and Boy 412 manage to escape the Hunter and discover a beautiful dragonlike boat in the underground passage Boy 412 found earlier. Zelda freezes the Hunter, but all four are shocked when DomDaniel's sullen apprentice who was sent along reveals himself as Septimus Heap, stolen at birth by the midwife as he is the powerfully Magykal seventh son of a seventh son. Despite the protagonists' vigilance the Apprentice manages to escape and returns to DomDaniel, who resolves to eliminate the Heaps himself after the Hunter's failure. Nicko, Jenna and Boy 412 follow him to DomDaniel's ship, the Vengeance, where they discover Marcia is held prisoner. In the climax of the book a tumultuous storm sweeps over the Marshes and the nearby sea rises to flood them. Nicko, Jenna and Boy 412 sally out in the Dragon Boat, a sentient creature that was once a dragon, to rescue Marcia. With their help Marcia manages to escape and reclaims the all-important Akhu Amulet from DomDaniel, returning the power of ExtraOrdinary Wizard to her. DomDaniel is killed when his ship sinks in the marsh and is swarmed by predators. He makes one last bid at survival by possessing his Apprentice, whom he sends to kill Jenna, but is thwarted again and his spirit flees back to his corpse, leaving the Apprentice an empty husk which Zelda determines she will nurse back to life. In the final scene, all of the Heap family (including a sullen Simon, who ran away to marry his sweetheart Lucy Gringe but was imprisoned by the Supreme Custodian after Lucy's father tipped him off and escaped only after coming to value himself and his ambitions above his family) gather on Draggen Island where Zelda scries her duck pond to discover Boy 412's true identity. Showing signs of being strongly Magykal, Boy 412 has accepted Marcia's offer to be her Apprentice, and his single request is to know who he is. In the final flashback it is revealed that the midwife who stole baby Septimus was to hand him over to a servant of DomDaniel but mistakenly had her own son taken instead, leading the poor boy into a life of thinking he is Septimus Heap and disappointing his master, and baby Septimus to grow up in the Young Army, as Boy 412.

Reading this book again as an adult is obvious that Boy 412 is really Septimus from various hints throughout the story, including the fact that 412 adds up to 7. This is very much a book aimed at children, with a weak antagonist in DomDaniel who comes across as nasty rather than evil and the Hunter's comical fate as a memory-rewritten buffoon. The Magyk is often fun and silly and little in this book takes itself seriously, but there is richness to Sage's writing and a homeliness to her characters and settings that gives it an enduring charm and provides the true magic in Magyk.                

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