Book review

The Ropemaker by Peter Dickinson (2001)

Tilja lives in a hidden valley. It is concealed by magic to protect the people from their enemies. But the magic is now beginning to fail. The women in Tilja's family have been the guardians of the magic forest on the southern border of their valley for the last nineteen generations. The knowledge is passed from mother to daughter, in secret. But the knowledge is not passed to Tilja, even though she is the first-born daughter, because she cannot hear the cedars talking inside the forest. In fact, Tilja doesn't seem to have any magic in her at all.

Can you imagine how she feels? She feels excluded, jealous, aggrieved, bereft. All the more puzzling, then, when the cedars tell Tilja's little sister, Anja, that Tilja must go with her sharp-tongued grandmother, Meena, through the forest into the dangerous Empire, to search for the magician who can renew the protective barrier around their Valley.

They do not go alone. They go with Alnor Ortahlson who is the guardian of the glaciers on the northern border of their valley. Now, Alnor is old and blind and walks with his hand on the shoulder of his grandson, Tahl. Tahl is about the same age as Tilja. Tilja has to help her grandmother, who is crippled with arthritis and cannot walk. She has a wooden seat mounted onto their pony, Calico. Calico is the grumpiest of the lot of them, but they're all rather scratchy people, in their own way:

She hobbled around, grunting every now and then with the pain of her hip, which was the main cause of her moods. It was obviously bad today, and no wonder, in this weather. There was no point Tilja trying to help or hurry her - she hated that, and in any case she had done all she needed in a very few minutes, putting her pots to the side of the stove, closing the dampers, and fetching an extra layer of clothing out of her chest. she let Tilja ease her feet into her ancient boots and lace them and her leggings. By the time she was dressed in her sheepskin coat and hat and swathed to the eyes in scarves you wouldn't have known whether was was woman or man or troll.
Tilja positioned Calico beside the mounting block in the lane, helped Meena climb it, repositioned Calico, who had of course sidled away, and heard Meena groan with the pain of settling herself into the horse-seat Da had made for her because of her hip - more like a padded legless chair than a saddle.
'I'll do now,' said Meena. 'You give me my cane - I'm not standing any nonsense from this stupid creature. Born cussed, and she'll die cussed, like most of us.'

How do you set about finding a magician who hides himself so effectively that no one even knows his name? Well, they have their magic spoon, Axtrig, who seems anxious to find her master, and will point the way, but the travellers soon discover that it is absolutely dangerous to attempt to use any magic inside the Empire. There are malevolent and all-powerful Watchers who serve the Emperor and who will seek out and destroy all unauthorised magicians. Their magic spoon needs to be 'warded' so that they can carry it round the Empire undetected.

Now we begin to see why the cedars insisted that Tilja should undertake the journey with Meena. Tilja has no sensitivity for magic, and feels like a freak, but she begins to understand that her negative reaction to magic is also a great gift, as great as the gift of any great magician. She can literally absorb magic powers and deflect them away from herself and anyone else who happens to hold on to her in a difficult moment!

If you enjoy magic, I think you will find this a really exciting story. The magic is wild and rampant, but the characters are rather endearingly ordinary

What can I read next?

Peter Dickinson has written very many books. You could look at this exciting survival adventure with a group of young homo sapiens at the dawn of time:

There's absolutely buckets of magic about. If you fancy something like The Ropemaker, you could have a look at this trilogy known as The Wind on Fire by William Nicholson:

Or you could look at Philip Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials:

I think you might rather enjoy this story by Kate Thompson:

Or this story by Michael Ende:

Also, of course, there are the classics by J R R Tolkien:

Finally, you might like to have a look at the Dalemark Quartet by Diana Wynne Jones:

Also, the Bookchooser has found these books with a similar profile:

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