"Gold doesn't always mean gold"...unless it's this novel! (A Review of Tone Almhjell's The Twistrose Key)
As a father I’m always on the hunt for new YA books—whether fantasy, science fiction, or something of the ‘real’ world—that will entrance my boys. I’m looking for something that I would have liked to read at their age, to inspire them to their own ideas and adventures. However, I have an ulterior motive as well: as a frustrated novelist, I’m always on the lookout for that one book that will make me go, “here it is—the book I could never possibly write so I can finally stop writing!” Both motives seemed to converge when I ran across this volume, with a beautiful cover and striking, Old World fairy-tale illustrations (and maps!) inside. Though ostensibly for my oldest son, I checked out the book and tucked into it that very evening, reading it every chance I got, despite grading that needed to be done and other important adult concerns. In large part, the book amply repaid my expectations; and while I might not retire the pen just yet, Almhjell’s second novel may be the final nail in my literary coffin.
Without spoiling too much, I’ll reveal the general frame of the story: Lin Rosenquist, a plucky young heroine, finds a strange key concealed in a letter that ends up unlocking a hidden door in a cellar filled with taxidermist horrors. The door leads to a frozen world where she is reunited with her pet vole, Rufus, who died five weeks ago. After a frightful adventure, he brings her to the main town, Sylveros, an enchanted realm populated by “Petlings,” or pets that were once loved by human children. Here they watch over their children back home and prepare for the next coming of the Wanderer, a blazing star that lights up the sky and completes a crucial magical cycle. However, the momentary unbalance brings out the potential for darkness—and to combat it, a Twistrose is summoned from among the Petling’s children. It turns out Lin is this very Twistrose, and she is summoned in most dire need: for the last of the Winterfrysts is missing, a powerful race of ice creatures who alone can create the Wandersnow, the magical ‘glue’ that binds the realm. With Rufus as her guide, she sets off to follow a trail of clues to discover the fate of Isvan, the last Winterfryst, while certain residents—notably the shifty cat, Figenskar—take an eager interest in her arrival.
Tone Almhjell magnificently creates a believable world that seems to have existed long before anyone picked up the book—or indeed, she even wrote a word of the story. We are dropped into Sylveros quite “in the middle,” and have to pick up the pieces along with Lin, as Almhjell avoids any florid exposition. Every page suggests a deep history, some of it resembling the worlds of Narnia, Middle Earth, and even Harry Potter, though the larger part seemingly carved out of the rock and ice of Norwegian folklore. Figuring out the twists and turns of Sylveros, and the forbidding lands beyond, is the chief appeal of the story. The map in the front of the book helps us navigate this enchanted realm, taking us from the mouthwatering smells of Waffleheart to the chilling secrets of the Observatory. The characters are well drawn, and the plot is hidden in several layers of mystery, chief among these the haunting “Margrave’s Song” which Lin discovers early in the book. Almhjell wraps up the entire plot in this song, though it takes all of 350 pages to really decipher it. The twists and turns of the book are truly enjoyable, clever, and never hackneyed. I was always left guessing how Lin would solve the mystery and save Sylveros, even a mere page or two before she did so! This is truly a testament to Almhjell’s sense of pacing and structure; she tells a fantastic story and knows just when to pull back.
However, it is a first novel, and it has some small ‘flaws,’ if you will (though they are very minor). Some issues of the plot and the world of Sylveros are never definitively explained, and one or two major issues only come to light in the very closing pages; indeed, one of the main characters even exclaims, “Why the rats have you not told us this before?” (329). Obviously this was intentional, but the ending seems a bit rushed and full of expository information that might have bubbled up sooner. After a very leisurely and well-paced first 250 or so pages, I truly felt the scramble to 354 was a bit of a dash. The parting with Sylveros is also quite abrupt, and seemingly at odds with the rest of the book. I wanted her to linger more in this world, to let Lin understand the legacy of her mission, and perhaps, forge a connection to future books (if she plans to write them). There are also bits of repetitive detail that don’t wear as well for me, such as Lin’s obsession with rewarding herself points whenever she accomplishes something, or constantly telling herself to think harder, look deeper when she finds herself stuck. This, however, is probably subjective as these are integral to Lin’s character.
This aside, Almhjell’s writing makes you forget these misgivings—you quickly lose yourself in a story that sounds as timeless as a fairytale and as invigorating as a troll hunt. She has an uncanny ability to conjure up a child’s perspective and understanding of the world, yet without abandoning the very adult desire of good storytelling. In a small example (early in the book, so it doesn’t give anything away), Rufus is explaining why time in Sylveros runs differently from that in Lin’s world:
“Have you ever sat in your room, finding the afternoon impossibly dull and long? Or spent a day playing some game and been surprised by the nightfall?” [Rufus] shuffled over to the desk and brought back the clock with its ivory dial behind black roman numerals, placing it on the table between them. “When you are young, you perceive time in a way that has little to do with mechanics and measured units. And what the young people of Earth perceive, or experience, or feel has consequences here. Go on. Touch it. What do your fingers tell you?” (49-50).
This passage is wonderful to me for two reasons: one, it captures a child’s experience of time not being ‘adult’ time, bound to watches and schedules. Time changes depending on the activity—it is a fluid, almost malleable concept. And two, it stresses one of the main themes of the book, the ability for children (or adult readers) to touch, feel, and experience things rather than taking them at face value. Lin constantly remembers a song her mother sang to her that goes “gold doesn’t always mean gold.” Sometimes that which glitters is merely a ruse to draw you in and…you know what. One of the subtle themes of the book is the power of the natural world vs. the ever-increasing technological supremacy of modern life. Even in Sylveros, the machine age threatens to derail a thousand years of magical peace. Far from beating us over the head with this 21st century moral, it exists quietly in the background, easy for adults to pick up on, but more intuitive for children who touch and feel their way through the world.
In short, I really enjoyed this book and look forward to a sequel or simply a second book by Almhjell. The Twistrose Key, though bearing many hallmarks of traditional fantasy, manages to distinguish itself from so many tiresome apocalyptic, vampiric, zombie-laden fare crowding the bookshelves these days. Her nationality, too, might give her a unique approach to the subject matter, since so much of fantasy from Tolkein on borrows quite liberally from Scandinavian sources. Well, here is the real deal, someone who draws on her literary heritage to create a work (in English, no less—no translator is credited) that complements our modern cultural mythology.
Now go buy your own copy of the book and realize how far my brief appreciation falls short of its true merits!