Shamanka by Jeanne Willis

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Shamanka by Jeanne Willis

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A very interesting if flawed read, where a young girl is dragged by family history into a globe-trotting adventure involving an orang-utan who was brought back from the dead, and a woman who may not have been...
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: March 2007
Publisher: Walker Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1844286492

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It's 1985, London, and Sam is not having a very happy childhood. Trapped with living with her Aunt Candy, she can seldom do what she wants. These things range from getting out of being locked up in the attic, to practicing her magic tricks - which the family orang-utan taught her, to finding out what really happened to her parents.

Aunt Candy, a contortionist by training, who now hates everything to do with magic, circuses or performing, is a fan of mother's ruin, and giving huge stinking porkies whenever Sam asks after her dad. Luckily a magical find in the attic, a rescue by Lucy the orang-utan, and some psychic dreams suggest to Sam that her father is still alive, and may have once been a powerful illusionist sent on a global quest for answers by his witch doctor father.

There then follows a similar quest for Sam, as she first has to track down Lucy (after Aunt Candy disposed of her), then the truth. It's a particularly singular quest, one that forces Sam to meet every kind of performance artiste - fire-breather, living statue - and engage with almost every kind of psychic ability. Thus dreams are interpreted, dowsing with pendulums is done, people who use automatic writing are sought. The mystical ranges from the miracles of Lourdes to qi gong, and the laying on of hands. The protagonists are mostly brilliantly-written characters, most of whose names are anagrams of each other. We've been told to beware anagrams...

This really makes for an individual element to this adventure - it might be a simple-sounding quest, although it does turn into a rollicking mystery before its conclusion - and this really works; there is very little effort made, if any, to convince that any style of foretelling works, or any style of psychic ability is more or less worthwhile - it is all a matter of fact world, inhabited by our heroine. Her universe has long been one of magic and magicians, practicing sleight-of-hand at a young age (and forced by her wicked aunt to wear recycled ringmasters' uniforms as school costume - gold glitter thread in the blazer and all).

The other very worthwhile quirk is the writing style. Narrated by a master magician, he (she, it?) uses basic, simple paragraphs, but quite often breaks into reporting the dialogue rather than specifically quoting. This will potentially confuse the youngest of possible readers, as the paraphrase may be instantaneous or refer to one of many strands of the back-story that's being researched. And some readers of a less mature age will miss some of the humour - while everyone will get the character that speaks in nursery rhyme cliché, there are jokes for the adults as well, just like the more considerate cartoon movies.

This something for everyone only goes so far, however, as the heroine failed to engage with me. Sure, I had sympathy for her stereotyped fairy tale beginnings, but the quest was not so urgent for me. Feel free to simplify things by saying I'm not Jeanne Willis's target audience, but I feel that the supporting cast are so strong and varied, and the back-story of such concern that Sam herself does not come across as well as she might.

Also, akin to an unfortunate regularity in pace leading to the climax, is the suggestion that the world of performers and psychics is just too - I don't know what, to justify such an adventure, - argumentative? There seems not so much of a plot-twist as a minor set-back when one entry into the world of the arcane doesn't seem to work, only for yet another one to be just around the next corner.

That said, this is certainly a recommendable book, and not for those of an age akin to Sam's twelve years. There are still those ignorant of the ability for teenage fiction, genre material or not, to do what 'adult' fiction just will not, or cannot, do. For those people, I would recommend them dabbling in a book such as this - no pretence, just good writing, no major scheme of things but still with the ability to deliver a fable regarding good and evil, family and inheritance, magic and reality, dreams and fantasy...

The book is very pleasantly presented too - apart from shoddy proof-reading. Each chapter is prefaced with a new magic skill to learn, from palming coins to teleportation. The whole book has this attention to detail, and the way the whole gamut of psychic skill and mystical performance is featured must surely leave no scope for a sequel and reminds me if anything of an orgiastic Neil Gaiman.

I would recommend this certainly for its target audience, who would surely need to go to the fortune-teller's tent or the circus quite soon after. For those of a more mature bent, I would recommend this for dabbling into the world of children's fantasy.

I would like to thank the publishers for sending a copy for the Bookbag to read. We also have a review of Penguin Pandemonium - Christmas Crackers (Awesome Animals) by Jeanne Willis.

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