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Old 26th Apr 2012, 11:45   #1
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Default RJ Anderson: Swift

Contains some spoilers:

The covers of RJ Anderson’s books - Arrow, Knife, Rebel, Swift - are lovely (better than the US versions, I think) and here we have the latest offering of faerie-tale magic, Swift: tough-looking Ivy on the front in armour but also the swift bird who represents Ivy’s only means of flying. [It is a shame but hopefully not a spoiler that after a brief mention in the opening pages, the armour is never seen or used as per the illustration.]

Anderson has a talent for expanding her world of English countryside kingdoms – faeries first in hollow tree systems, now piskies in abandoned Cornish tin and silver mines - and characters and plots are beginning to interweave to form a network of magical creatures. That is the setting but it is not the meat of her books, which seem to engage with the difficulties of family life and community life, particularly communities which seem to be overtly (and also covertly) controlled by an authoritative power. The threats which formulate the plot are of distrust, rejection from the community, consorting with the enemy of a community, and rejecting the norms of community or family life.

Ivy’s mother has abandoned her husband and children to join the human world, and an unknown enemy is targeting the piskies, avenging an ancient grudge, and this makes for actually a fairly straightforward story: we know Ivy is disadvantaged by her lack of wings (unlike all other piskies) but simultaneously we know that she will overcome this disability with other skills. Interestingly and unusually she is given some assistance but remarkably little by the young man “Richard” - a character from previous books who here is an intermittent presence and unfortunately a little too opaque to ‘get’ if you were reading Swift as a stand-alone. “Richard” quotes Shakespeare extensively in his first encounters with Ivy but really I can’t imagine that the resonance of his quotes make much sense to a young teen reading this book.

Anderson does replay one of the underpinning themes of her earlier books which I think is to the detriment of this one - corruption at the heart of leadership – and to my mind, the nature and life of the piskies isn’t sufficiently distinct enough from the faerie life and skills to warrant them being two communities. Magic seems too easily accessed and the ability to morph into human form (or particular other forms) or heal or become invisible seems so second-nature, that you wonder what makes the piskies live underground in earthen tunnels, mining (for what?) and raising their children in darkness. The end of Swift suggests this is exactly what Anderson is seeking to illustrate but as in Twilight the vampires’ nature is boringly human and essentially normal (that they drink animal blood rather than eat pizza is the only problematical injunction), the magical world of faeries etc seems almost inferior to the benefits of living as human-sized beings in the human world. Anderson's first book, Arrow, impressed very strongly on the reader how human creativity was lacking in the ultra-natural world of the faeries.

Swift leaves me a little confused about where Anderson might go next. Numerous evil characters and situations have been overcome – communities are being led out of darkness into light – there is still discrimination and distrust between communities: perhaps the power vacuum is the next source of trouble, perhaps finding an identity as a common nation is the moral issue. These are strong and good themes being worked through in an attractively created ‘magical world’ gradually integrated into our own. Swift proves a little bumpy and a little samey in its story-telling, and too swift to explain to the reader and Ivy a particularly nasty bit of magic that eliminates enemies, but most 10-13’s will enjoy Ivy’s journey to re-unite her family and free her community.

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