Book review: “Angel Isle” by Peter Dickinson

Angel Isle
by Peter Dickinson
Recommended Ages: 13+

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In the story before the story before the story, four representatives from a peaceful, bucolic valley traveled into the Empire to the south in search of a magician who would build a magical barrier around their valley, protecting it from both northern marauders and the conscripting, taxing powers of the Empire. Eventually a magician named Faheel fixed things so that, as long as the male descendants of Ortahl the miller sang to the northern snows, an ice dragon would keep the pass closed to barbarian invasion; and as long as a female descendant of Urla the farmer fed barley to the unicorns and sang to the cedars, a sickness in the forest to the south of the valley would keep men from the Empire out as well. This protection held for twenty generations. Then, in the story before this story—see the companion book The Ropemaker—a second delegation of four proceeds southward in search of Faheel, and a renewing of the magic that has protected the valley so well. But now another twenty generations have passed, and the magical barriers have crumbled again. And so, for a third time, descendants of Ortahl and Urla must go aquesting.

After forty generations of Ortahlssons and Urlasdaughters being tied to the same mill and the same farm, all is not well in the valley. And after the previous book’s heroes helped shake up the way the Empire polices magic, things have not developed there as well as expected, either. So the dangers the folks from the Valley face are the same—only more so. And the outcome of their adventure will be entirely different.

We first find Maja Urlasdaughter cowering in a crawlspace under the burnt ruin of her family’s barn. Half of her family has been killed by raiders, and the other half have gone off to war, their fate unknown. What draws Maja out of her hiding place is the sight of her long-lost cousin Saranja arriving with a horse at her shoulder, and the figure of Ribek Ortahlsson limping up the road, and the stunning burst of magic that flows out when Saranja picks two long-cherished roc feathers out of the rubble of the farmhouse and uses them to give her horse wings. As the three of them fly over the valley on hippogriff-back, their mount is spooked by the sight of an airship—part of an invading force from a faraway land whose people Saranja, in her exile across the desert, has come to know as sheep-faces. As they travel southward, they learn that the sheep-faces, or pirates, are attacking the coast. And the new Watchers—worse than the old ones, who clamped down on the practice of magic in the Empire—are almost, but not quite, fully occupied with resisting the pirates with every power at their disposal, including (unfortunately) the unleashing of powerful demons. The Watchers themselves have become a kind of demon, absorbing powers and personalities into a single essence and using all of it in a quest for world domination.

These, then, are the dangers Maja, Saranja, and Ribek must face in their search for the Ropemaker, the great magician who gave the Valley its latest booster-shot against invading neighbors. But you still have no idea of the full seriousness of their situation. They won’t find the Ropemaker without the aid of magic. But the Watchers will spot any magic going on outside their control, and rush to enslave it or absorb it into themself. (That last word is not a mistake. Trust me, and tremble.) Plus, once outside the Valley, Maja is so sensitive to magic that anything powerful going on near her could kill her. So no, this will not be an easy quest. With the aid of a talking lizard named Jex—an aspect of a being from another universe—and of a shepherd boy named Benayu whose natural talent for magic beats anything ever seen, they might just survive it. But only if Benayu grows into his powers fast enough to destroy the Watchers before they destroy him, and only if Maja can find the right balance between shielding herself from magic and being open enough to follow the magical trail leading to the Ropemaker.

The quest of these four people (plus one lizard, three horses, and a dog) is anything but simple and straightforward. No one knows where the Ropemaker has gone to. The few great magicians who remain untainted by the Watchers can do little to help them. They must face dragons, demons, a town where magic is prohibited, a difficult desert crossing, a risky and bizarre interlude in a seven-dimensional universe, time loops, magic that can take years off a person’s life, the ultimate evil, and an airborne invasion from a steampunk country that (like some countries you and I might know of) seems to think the mission of making other countries do things their way is a good reason to go to war. They will have to become magical warriors, masters of disguise, diplomats, and interdimensional travelers, and all that mostly to save the Empire from which they mean to save their valley. A thankless task? You don’t know the half of it. Along the way, some of these characters find love, and most of them find a future in store for them different from what they expected.

And what will you find? Another thrilling, immersing, world-building adventure, opening up an already huge and highly colored fantasy world to even wider vistas of familiar strangeness. With this book I wasn’t struck by the beauty of the writing as much as in The Ropemaker. At times the overall shape of it eluded me. But the trade-off in this bargain was a wider scope of doings and a tendency to surprise. One of the surprises is a quantum-physical model of magic, on which Dickinson elaborates in an appendix where, among other things, the existence of other universes with a different number of dimensions suggests a possible “touching point” between science fiction and fantasy. But even if that goes over your head—and to me, some of the coolest bits are those that do so—there are still dragons and airships, winged horses (and one winged dog), horrible demons (one of them pink), a spy with a heart of gold, a magicians’ death ritual (occult content advisory), and an act of impersonation so amazing that I don’t dare describe it. In my books, that makes it a quest worth reading about, even if the original objectives are lost somewhere along the way. And the new destiny lined up for Ribek, Saranja, Maja, and their friends brings their story to a satisfying close.

This book was pretty good! I would recommend adding it to your reading list.
This book was pretty good! I would recommend adding it to your reading list.