Three present-day teens are thrown together in the last defense of a medieval castle—each one lonely for a different reason. Emily is an only child whose schoolmates either pick on her or ignore her. Simon is the youngest child of a big, blue-collar, trouble-making family, who often gets picked on at home. And as for Marcus… well, he’s not even from the West Norfolk village where the children sneak onto the grounds of a ruined castle for a bit of sledding and snowball-fighting. No one really knows much about him, except that his imagination is sparked by the romance and mystery of a castle that entertained kings, withstood sieges, and even hosted its very own ghost story.
Though Simon is the natural trouble-maker and Marcus is captivated by the castle, it is Emily who instigates the break-in. It’s only a matter of a bit of rope and a climb up to a first-floor window. (That’s one floor up from ground level, for those of us reading on the left side of the Pond.) The first time they get in, they explore the layout, discovering such points of interest as the murder holes, through which the castle’s defenders could shoot arrows straight down or pour oil on the heads of their attackers. Another time they remember to bring enough supplies to stay overnight, building a fire and munching sandwiches in a room that hasn’t seen overnight guests in over three hundred years.
With each visit, they run greater risks of being caught by their parents or turfed out by the caretaker. But on their third visit to the old castle, things go right out of control. Marcus turns up bruised and frightened, claiming that his father had beaten him for lying about where he was on the night of the sleepover. He says he has run away from home and claims the castle as his refuge. Then Marcus’s father shows up looking for him, and brings policemen and others to aid in the search. What else can Em and Simon do than stand by their friend?
And so the castle faces its last siege, defended by three desperate children armed with little more than sticks, stones, snowballs, jugs of water (perfect for making ice-slicks in the frozen corridors), and an intimate knowledge of the ruins. Thanks to one boy’s overactive imagination and his two friends’ trusting nature, what might have been only a short prank pulled by ill-behaved youngsters becomes an all-out emergency—a one-day war—and, in a surprisingly powerful climax, a taut-strung, life-or-death drama.
The author of such supernaturally souped-up tales as Buried Fire, The Leap, and the Bartimaeus trilogy, here proves that literal magic does not a magical story make. The power of storytelling, demonstrated through the stories Marcus tells within this story, is a magic to be reckoned with. There is a line between romanticized history and outright fiction, between lie and delusion, between courage and madness, no less wonderful and dangerous than the boundaries of the land of Faerie. And when it comes to pulling someone back from the brink, there is nothing like the voice of a friend.