Tuesday, 18 February 2003

Jan Siegel: Propero's Children (1999)

Edition: Voyager, 1999
Review number: 1144

Since Snow White, the character of a witch stepmother is quite a common one in fantasy. Prospero's Children combines this with another idea frequently seen in modern fiction, if not in fantasy - children trying to indicate their disapproval of a candidate to become a stepmother. (This development in fiction is mainly a reflection of changes in Western society, where it has become usual for children - at least of a certain age - to be able to express an opinion on this issue.) So how can a sixteen year old girl tell her father that his girlfriend is (literally) an evil witch?

I suspect that this was the idea from which Prospero's Children developed. It is clearly close to fantasies aimed at children and adolescents - portions frequently reminding me of writers like Alan Garner or Susan Cooper - but combines this with a more adult sensibility, reminiscent in other pages of Clive Barker, or John Crowley. It falls into the subgenre of fantasy novels in which a mundane world is found to contain hidden magic, in this case the inheritance of the descendats of the dispossessed citizens of Atlantis who are known as Prospero's children. A talisman, key to the door of death, was lost in the destruction of Atlantis, but in twentieth century Yorkshire it is about to come to light again. At the death of a distant seafaring relation, the Capel family inherit a house on the edge of the moor near Whitby, and the children become suspicious when they realise that their father's girlfriend is more interested in getting into the house than in him as a person. In their Wuthering Heights influenced setting, the children gradually become involved in a world of magic, particularly once it becomes apparent that the sister has the gift herself.

Imaginative while grounded in the traditions of the fantasy genre, Prospero's Children is an admirable novel. It combines the immediacy of the children's writers mentioned with the stronger imagery of Barker, and makes a stepping stone between the works admired in earlier years and those aimed at adults alone.

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