The Perilous Gard – Elizabeth Marie Pope, illustrated by Richard Cuffari

Summary: “In 1558 while imprisoned in a remote castle, a young girl becomes involved in a series of events that lead to an underground labyrinth peopled by the last practitioners of druidic magic.”

It’s amazing, what information lurks on the inside cover of this book (in fine print, just under the copyright and publishing details). I’ve just picked up a random selection of books from our coffee table (n=4, where population = 12, and if I weren’t so lazy I could just look at the whole population, but I think a sample of 4 is quite enough), and none of them have any kind of summary on their inside cover. It’s a crying shame, because of all summaries were as concise, descriptive, and tantalizing as this one, the world would be a better place.

I do have one teeny little bone to pick, though. The summary doesn’t mention that the last practitioners of druidic magic are not…quite…people. That is, they aren’t really human. They are the last of the Fairy Folk, and I don’t mean Tinkerbell. We’re talking older and wilder: the People of the Hills, the sidhe, Puck at his worst, Titania at her coolest and most commanding, Oberon at his most majestic (I’m just showing off my Grade 9 English class education here – none of Puck, Titania nor Oberon are actually in the book). The Old Ones/Fairy Folk who live near the Perilous Gard have a calculating logic with no room for compassion or caring. And poor Kate Sutton, the heroine of the tale, accidentally gets thrown into Their world and has to use all of her clumsy, stubborn, human self to rescue her friend and herself.

“Oh no!” you say, “Another children’s book about magic!” “Not again,” you say, “Another young hero against dark wizards!” Have no fear. Kate Sutton doesn’t have a drop of magic in her, and neither does any other human in the book. There are no spells or wands or dragons or broomsticks. In fact, for all the creepy thrilling moments in the book I can hardly recall any magic at all except [yes, this is kind of a spoiler]:

  • The Queen of faeries weaves some kind of sleeping spell on Kate, but mostly by using hypnosis and her charming voice.
  • The Queen of faeries also seems to be able to disappear/blend in at will.
  • There is a “magic well” that grants wishes to people who drink at it…although it really just seems like the water in the well is doped with a tasty drug.
  • The faerie are able to fashion doors that have no perceptible opening or closure (although this can be done by human craftsmen).
  • The faerie drove someone mad (this also can be done by humans, much to our shame).
  • An unnamed but draining ritual is used to sap Kate’s friend of his will.

Which is to say, that there is hardly any magic in this book at all (at least, nothing that couldn’t be done by regular human beings) and that the summary is quite correct that the faerie do seem human.

But what of the book? Oh – read it. Go on, read it! It is a fun story, a thrilling adventure love-story about Kate Sutton, her banishment to the Perilous Gard, her capture by the faerie, and her eventual escape. It’s a story about Kate coming out of the shadow of her younger, prettier sister and coming into her own. It’s a story about how someone who feels that they are just not good enough, realizes that indeed, they are not only good enough, they are great. And it has illustrations – about one for every few chapters, and the kinds of illustrations (they look like pen and ink with some washes) that give a nice flavour to the characters in the story. I love illustrations.

I also love Pope’s descriptions. She makes the entire era come to life. Sure, half of the book takes place underground in a fairy hill. But it all still feels like olden olden times: the way people talk, what they talk about, the things that they do, the place where they live. The inside back cover (hurrah for inside covers!) says that Pope is an English professor who specializes in Elizabethan England and who traveled to England to research “the rich historical background of The Perilous Gard” (no mention of the many other things she may have done while she was there). Hey – if I could get funding to go travel somewhere for the background for a children’s book, I’d do it in a snap.

Reading Ages: I recently noticed that I read And Both Were Young (Madeleine L’Engle) when I was ten. Ten! The Perilous Gard is definitely pre-And Both Were Young, so I guess that would make the reading ages 9-13. I say “13” because if you were a child who didn’t love reading, this would be about the right length. Also, it is a bit scary at parts. Those faerie folk are not to be messed with. **If you are a easily creeped-out person, you may not want to read this book.

Creepiest Things Under the Hill: I’m having a hard time deciding, and if you don’t like creepy things, you should avoid this bit. Is it that the humans are given some kind of drug to make them happy and vacant like squealing livestock (a drug that Kate, sensible thing, refuses)? Or is it the “grey creature” who uses an unspoken mind-power-torture to drain Kate’s friend of his will? The mess of bones held together by grey scraps found after the well is flooded? Eeeeeeeee.

Rating: A-. The minus is because it’s not fantastic fantastic. But it’s still very good.

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