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A few pages into this book by the author of The Tears of the Salamander, I decided that Peter Dickinson is probably the best writer living today. Given that I have only read these two of his fifty-odd books, that may come across as a hasty judgment. But I haven’t forgotten that Tears was the best book I read in 2005, and I don’t plan to forget that this was the best book I have read so far this year. It is not only a powerful and entertaining story, conjuring a lovely and dangerous new world, and peopling it with believable and lovable characters. It is also a prime feat of the writer’s craft, perfectly balancing plot and pacing with dialogue and description. Its language is both transparently beautiful and beautifully transparent, with not one word out of place. Even when he is describing things that ought to be indescribable, Dickinson does it right.
One of the indescribable things in this book is the kind of magical gift that Tilja Urlasdaughter has. In the beginning, she feels left out of the line of magical inheritance that has run through her family, mother to daughter, for twenty generations. It’s the ability to hear the trees talking, and to sing to them, maintaining the barrier of sickness that afflicts only men, filling the forest that protects their peaceful valley from the cruel Empire to the south. It’s part of a tradition that grows out of an improbable tale of magic, also connected to a line of men who sing to the snows that close the mountain pass to the north of the valley. With this gift—a touch of magic in an otherwise unmagical but blessed little world—come the keys to the farm at Winterbourne, which is all that Tilja has known. Her grandma Meena passed it on to Tilja’s Ma, even though there was an older daughter in that generation. And now the talent, together with the farm, will pass to Tilja’s little sister Anja, meaning that Tilja will have to leave that loved place and make a life for herself elsewhere.
But as Tilja gradually learns, she has a different kind of power. In the year when the snows fail to keep the pass closed (exposing the valley to marauders from the north), and when a terrifying encounter with a horned creature interrupts Ma’s singing to the cedars, four travelers from the valley set out in search of a great magician who can renew the charms that protect their homeland. It is the valley-dwellers’ first visit to the south after hundreds of years worth of attempts to recover what the Empire calls its Lost Province. And if their culture-shock is extreme, so also is the shock they administer to that corrupt, dangerous, magically watched land.
Two facts about the Empire should give you a sufficient idea of what they’re up against. First, the Emperor holds the power of life and death over his subjects—literally. So literally, in fact, that anyone who dies without written leave must forfeit his property to the crown. Those who can afford all the permits, the bribes, and the kickbacks along the way, must travel to the capital city Talagh and purchase death-leaves. Anyone else must make a pilgrimage to Goloroth, the City of Death, in the far south of the Empire, and allow themselves to be cast adrift on the ocean before they die. Otherwise their loved ones may be sold into slavery to pay the penalty. Nasty, eh? But it’s also lucky for Tilja and her companions—her own grandmother, plus a blind old man and his grandson from the northern end of the valley—because it gives them a cover story as they journey southward, past checkpoint after checkpoint.
The second fact is, magic is everywhere in the Empire—but only those serving the Emperor are allowed to use it. Twelve of the Empire’s most powerful magicians therefore serve as Watchers, straining their senses to detect any unregulated magic use throughout the country. Meanwhile, Tilja’s companions can hardly avoid doing magic, even if they try. In their search for the magician Faheel, they are guided by a wooden spoon (don’t ask), an object so magical that nothing can subdue it… except the touch of Tilja’s skin. Somehow, her lack of magic has grown so profound that it has become a kind of magic all its own, hushing and in some cases undoing the workings of other magicians, if not the magicians themselves. The closer the spoon leads them to Faheel, the more danger Tilja, Meena, Alnor, and Tahl must face. And though the other three have considerable talents, it is finally on Tilja’s gift that their quest depends.
The discouraging thing about writing a synopsis of this novel is that, after doing my best for four paragraphs, I haven’t even mentioned the Ropemaker who gives the book its title. And short of spoiling everything for you, I don’t know what I would say about him, except to hint that the quest to save the valley grows to include helping a ring of great power pass from one great magician to another, and to prevent the latter from falling under the bad influence of the Watchers. Along the way, Tilja and friends are kidnapped by bandits, helped and hindered by strange animals, attacked by wielders of great power, and subjected to strange distortions in time itself. And so the story itself warps the barrier between fantasy and science fiction. And then, after drawing to a conclusion both satisfying and delicately heartbreaking, the book continues with a brief epilogue teasing the sequel: Angel Isle. With that to look forward to, and my opinion of Peter Dickinson’s writing burnished to a dazzling sheen, I am quite sure it won’t be eight years before I next read one of his books.