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Black Hearts in Battersea
by Joan Aiken
I think this is the second novel in the Wolves series that spans four decades of creativity by one of England’s more prolific children’s authors. Daughter of the poet Conrad Aiken, Joan writes with deft wit, original diction, and an ear for dialects and amusing slang. She also knows how to craft tired old plots into breathlessly exciting, funny, surprising, and weird adventures.
One of the funny, surprising, and weird things about this series is the setting. In The Wolves of Willoughby Chase it seemed unusual enough: a version of 19th century England in which wolves are a constant threat throughout the winter. Now it flowers into something positively fantastic: a parallel-history England in which the Stuarts never left the throne (James III is King) and the Hanoverian George is a vile pretender whose supporters are thick with plots.
A couple of years after the events of The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the charming, gifted goose-boy named Simon comes to London to study painting with his friend, Dr. Gabriel Field. He immediately runs into difficulty: Field is nowhere to be found. The disreputable family he claimed to be boarding with say, in their turn, that they have never heard of him.
All the same, Simon begins to work for a wheelwright named Cobb, study at the art academy of the eccentric Furneaux, and make the acquaintance of the even more eccentric Duke of Battersea, whose wife’s lady-in-waiting is none other than Sophie, Simon’s fellow-sufferer at the foundlings school from which he ran away years ago. Simon makes some unlikely friends, including the sullen young Lord Bakerloo and the irrepressible cockney child Dido Twite. Also, through no fault of his own, Simon makes some fiendish enemies, mainly by happening to be on the spot with courage and resourcefulness whenever the Hanoverians make some attempt on the Duke’s life.
Finally the villains realize that this is no time for half-measures, and they shanghai Simon in order to maroon him on a rocky island. Then they prepare one last, spectacular trap to do away with the Duke and the King in one fell stroke. They have underestimated Simon and his friends, however, if they think they will be so easily sidelined. Even shipwreck, wild wolves, fire, sabotage, and bombs can’t stop people who have determination, loyalty, and cleverness on their side — not to mention a multi-purpose tapestry and a hot-air balloon!
There is a rather sad note amid all these adventures, however, but be of good cheer. When Sophie says that she feels that somehow they will all see their little friend again, she is absolutely right. You will see her first, though, in Nightbirds on Nantucket.