When I was about eight or nine years old I was given the book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as a present. It was the book that turned me into ”a reader”. For the first time I felt a sense of shock and disbelief at events told by the author and I truly cared about and identified with the characters. I later re-read the story at different points in my childhood with a greater understanding of its meaning and it is, of course, a book mentioned by many adults as a childhood favourite. The story had a great impact on Piers Torday and such was its effect that he has now written his own book, The Lost Magician, in homage to the C S Lewis classic.
In view of my own relationship with and memories of the Narnia chronicles I approached this new story with a mixture of excitement and slight trepidation. I need not have worried. Piers Torday has captured what made The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe so special and created in this new exciting, thoughtful and wise story a celebration of reading, books, libraries and the power of the imagination.
Library Rule No. 1 ”If you can imagine it, it must exist. Somewhere.”
We meet the four children, Simon, Patricia, Evelyn and Larry in 1945 as they arrive at the home of Professor Diana Kelly where they are to spend the summer holidays while their parents cope with the aftermath of the Blitz and find a new home for them all. Once there first Larry and then the other children in turn find a mysterious secret Library door through which they reach the magical world of Folio. Those who live in this kingdom, The Reads made up of talking bears, miniature knights and other characters familiar from fairy tales, stories and legends are in an eternal battle with The UnReads an army of metallic robots lead by a Queen made of glass through which columns of numbers shine. The children find themselves caught up in this conflict and their only hope of resolving the situation is to find the creator of this world, a magician called The Librarian who has been lost for centuries.
This outline of the plot sounds familiar and yet as you read you discover so much more and gradually the relevance to our modern world becomes apparent. The battle between the inhabitants of Folio could be described as a conflict between facts or knowledge and the world of the imagination. There is another element to this magical world that terrifies all who live there, the Never Reads, representing ignorance. As the children’s quest continues they and the reader discover some important truths about both themselves and the world.
The characters of the four children are wonderfully drawn and young readers will find much to identify with in their different personalities. Each of them has been affected by the trauma of war and in their individual ways are trying to cope with its impact on them. Larry the youngest, always clutching his beloved Grey Bear, has an instant appeal having an open, gentle and trusting manner. His belief in the magic of stories and imagination is the driving force beneath all that takes places. I like to imagine him becoming a children’s author eventually! Evie is the child possibly most traumatised by her war experiences and this manifests itself in a determination to discover the truth behind everything. She feels she has been fobbed off by stories and now questions and wants answers. Patricia, a sensible and thoughtful girl, has been forced to grow up too quickly and in some ways takes on a maternal role with her siblings. Simon is a very interesting character who, although at times hard to warm to, is hiding his own feelings of inadequacy. A young man desperate to live up to his father’s expectations and experiences but struggling to know how to do so. It is a thoughtful touch to make it clear that Simon is dyslexic too, reinforcing the message that stories are for everyone even if you don’t find it easy to read them yourself.
It is hard to describe more of the story without giving spoilers but this is, like its inspiration, a book that can be read on many levels. After the scene setting opening the excitement mounts at a great pace and the story telling and world creation is wonderful. I really could see the beautiful valleys, the great plains and the forbidding mountains. I loved all the moments of recognition of old friends from other stories of which there are many. The most obvious being Larry and his dear friend bear bumping along behind him and the three talking bears who provided wonderful porridge for the children. There are moments where I relived episodes from my beloved Narnia but this never felt like a replication more a gentle reminder of previous wonders.
This is a cracking adventure that children will enjoy but they will then go away and ponder and remember. It is then that the magic of the storytelling by Piers Torday, a magician himself, will make them realise what they have learned. The readers will learn that although we need information and knowledge we need stories to help us make sense of them. We need previous experience found in stories and history to help us make decisions and avoid making the same mistakes. Perhaps also we need to learn not to be arguing amongst ourselves and instead work together against a common enemy.
I loved this book and will undoubtedly return to it. It is a story that makes you think, makes you care and makes you imagine. Perhaps best of all it is a story that speaks to the nine year old inside us all. I suspect that in years to come today’s children will look back at this wonderful story as one that made them ”readers” too. The satisfying ending reveals that there will be further adventures in the land of Folio and I am very much looking forward to being part of them.
Lastly, the wonderful cover illustration by Ben Mantle is simply perfect for the story.