The Puzzle Ring by Kate Forsyth

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The Puzzle Ring by Kate Forsyth

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A fantasy for the teen market that covers Scottish fairy mythology and a lot more in a very nice way, that really compels with a mix of odd elements at first, if reverting a little to standard questing. There's a lot all round to make this a recommendable title.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 448 Date: June 2009
Publisher: Scholastic
ISBN: 978-1407102849

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We're in Australia, and twelve year old Hannah has bad news for her mother - she's been sent home from school. Mum Roz has rather more startling news, however, as a strange letter arrives in the post. The family is actually linked to Scottish landed gentry, Roz is a Viscountess, Hannah a Lady, and she is due to inherit a stately pile on the banks of Loch Lomond. We learn Roz fled that part of her life when her husband - Hannah's dad - disappeared, presumed drowned, when Hannah was but a day old. In fact the whole family has been cursed for generations, and this might have been the most recent case of this proving itself.

This news is the impetus for a move back to Scotland, and a fantasy that covers Mary Queen of Scots, evil cats, a gift from a toad, locked rooms in towers, and problems in and with the fairy world. The mix is done so brilliantly that it comes with such a fresh novelty to the blend, and such consummate style, it doesn't have to bring in wormholes and time travel to make itself stand out as new - but it does.

It might sound a right old hodge-podge, but it actually works. I really enjoyed the way the disparate elements were teasingly built into the story, and we worked out alongside Hannah what was what, and what had to be done to remove the curse. It builds at a finely measured pace, giving the book a character of its own and making the fantasy impact on real life with great assuredness.

There are twinges to the book that make me think it might be a little unsuitable for the under elevens. Witness Hannah, more mature than her fantasy fiction compatriots with her love of Nina Simone, and willingness to study cryptic crossword clues. There is a style to the book, a breadth to the vocabulary, and a very vivid scene of high drama to close part one, that makes me steer the book to a 12+ age bracket.

But those I am sure will be as satisfied as I was, if not more. I loved the first half, with its build. We could not tell what would come out of the elements of the fantasy, nor even from Hannah and her relationships with the other children, adults - and animals - of the plot. Her Scottish circumstances are delivered to us very well, and as well as learning about Mary, Queen of Scots, we're gifted a subtle lesson in Gaelic/Celtic/pagan Scottish mythology and folklore - a wide sidestep from the Roma base to this author's first book.

I might be getting too critical, but there was a little bit of the second, quest-based half of the book, that was trying to cover all bases at once - a little bit of dramatic historical fiction, a soupcon of Ali Sparkes-styled outdoors adventuring, a touch of magical threat (always, happily enough, at a realistic level). And why make those characters eager to climb Arthur's Seat go to Edinburgh Castle first? But those are minor quibbles based on the great pleasure of the first half.

Kate Forsyth's first book came packaged with a free medallion, which suggests to me her publishers share her hard efforts in thinking about her books. This title however tells me it won't be long before such gimmicks are completely unnecessary. This is one of those blaze-through-it-one-sitting fantasy titles for the young teen audience that I can easily recommend.

I must thank the Scholastic people for the Bookbag's review copy.

A slightly younger audience wishing for Scottish fantasy are served by Tarantula Tide by Sharon Tregenza. You should also find a host of extra delights in our Top Ten Retellings of Myths, Legends and Fairy Tales.

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