Note - This review is a version of the review I posted on Amazon UK back in 2006. (I have also posted versions in a couple of other places since this one of my favourite novels. Should you find a review of this book anywhere on the net under the name Shutsumon or Firebird157 they're me)
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner
From early on in the Harry Potter Craze it struck me as strange that people spoke about how 'dark' JKR's novels were. I even heard one person say on TV that he was surprised his children enjoyed such dark books and that she had obviously discovered that kids liked things adults previously had not suspected.
To which I say. "Eh? What? That's not dark."
To be fair I was thinking this before the last three books. Those are definately dark but I would still say Alan Garner's Children's novels are in general darker. The ending of "Elidor" (possibly my least favourite Garner novel with the exception of the non-children's novel "Red Shift" which I utterly loathe) still raises goosebumps when I read it and "The Owl Service" is creepy as all hell. Then there are "The Alderley Tales" this is the collective name for two of his Children's novels "The Weirdstone of Brisingamen" and "The Moon of Gomrath". Today, as I'm sure you gathered, I'm dealing with the first of these.
Weirdstone was first published in 1960 according the copyright notice at the front of my copy and has been in print pretty much ever since -- which was no small achievement in the days before Print on Demand. I first read it the early 1980s and I remember being very impressed by it. I was always heavily into Fantasy due to it being my mother's reading genre of choice. She read Lord of the Rings to me when was 7 or 8 years old and so began my search for other decent fantasy works (because - to be blunt - most of the fantasy novels out there are sheer crap) and on the shelves of Primary School's library I found Weirdstone and borrowed it.
The novel tells the story of how the modern fallout of a century's old theft draws teenage brother and sister Colin and Susan inexorably into the otherworld and forces them to play a key part in the battle. Much to the distress of the wizard Cadellin Silverbrow who just wishes them to be safe and cannot initially figure out why the forces of darkness are apparently targetting them.
But this is no simple tale of good and evil or perhaps more correctly it is not just a simple tale of good and evil. Good and Evil are certainly there and recognisable but they exist at the extremes and most everybody else exists inbetween. There are times when you feel you would like to hit some of the forces of Light over the head with something large and heavy and tell them to stop being such assholes. And unlike in JKR's rather flat characterisations you are meant not to like these characters. (Note - while this is true of Weirdstone it is even truer of the sequel Moon which I will review another time.)
One of the notable things about Weirdstone is that it doesn't start in media res as they say. It takes its time and establishes the character and position of Colin and Susan before the obvious fantasy elements finally appear in Chapter Three. Yet Chapters One and Two are both oddly compelling. The very first scene of the two children in a train compartment on their way to their new home is beautiful in its mundanity -- especially when compared to what lies ahead of the children at Alderley Edge -- because anyone who has ever made a train journey will know exactly what Garner means when he says "And within three minutes they were both poised on the edge of their seats, case in hand and mackintosh over one arm, caught, like every traveller before or since, in that limbo of journey's end, when there is nothing to do and no time to relax. Those last miles were the longest of all." This is perhaps something that can be put down to its age. These days they say that you have to put the body on page one or you won't interest the readers. Maybe they are right but I would point out once again that Garner's books are still in print so they are obviously still finding readers.
In closing there is a Mythical quality to Weirdstone that probably comes from the fact that Garner uses real myth and folklore as the basis of his novel and I heartily recommend it to any fan of fantasy novels who reads this little review. A truely great fantasy gem.