August 12, 2012

The Piper of Shadonia

by Linda Smith
Coteau Books
232 pp.
Ages 11-15

With author Linda Smith's passing in 2007, The Piper of Shadonia has been published posthumously so the reader will need to look at Linda Smith's previously published books to enjoy the full extent of her award-winning fantasy writing.  If her other books are similar to The Piper of Shadonia, then they will show that the traditional fantasy novel, relying on an imaginary realm where magic can exist, is just as engrossing and fulfilling as contemporary paranormal fantasies.

Master Hamish Morgenstar, the father of fourteen-year-old Tobin, has just been installed as the mayor of Cradoc in the nation of Shadonia, one of the nations under Forenzian rule and Emperor Ferdinand.  Though he is schooled in the Forenzian ways i.e., those of the wealthier ruling class, and physically looks Forenzian because of his light hair, Tobin is proud of his Shadonian heritage, as supported by his father's mother, Gran, who continues to speak to him in Shadonian and tell him the stories of their people.  Even with his mixed background (his mother's father had been Forenzian but had converted to Shadonian), Tobin finds it tricky to balance his Forenzian advantages with his Shadonian background, especially when taunted by two Shadonian boys, Kasper and Graff, that his father was the "biggest boot-licking toady to the Forenzian emperor in all Cradoc." (pg. 8)  That assertion continues to plague and direct Tobin's actions throughout The Piper of Shadonia as he attempts to defend his father and his Shadonian heritage.

The appearance of a troupe of puppeteers in Cradoc heralds new conflict after Major Gurtin, a Forenzian officer, accuses them of inciting the Shadonians to rebel against the Emperor, and convinces the Mayor to have them arrested.  Tobin rushes to warn the puppeteers and ends up accompanying them on their travels.  So begins Tobin's adventure with the Ellabalm Puppeteers i.e., Balm, Ella and their daughter Gaby, along with the Shadonian bully Kasper.  It is during this time, while evading detection and watching behind the scenes, that Tobin develops his gift of becoming part of the landscape and calling forth the spirit of the river. 

The story in The Piper of Shadonia is essentially one of divided loyalties and reconciling the evil vs. good designation of people, both conflicts typical of all worlds, imaginary and real.  Tobin sways between defending his parents and their actions while supporting his Gran and other proud Shadonians who need to claim their heritage.  But which is the right side to support?  Are the Forenzians all evil?  Major Gurtin certainly is but what of the mayor who is threatened to follow orders?  And are all Shadonians innocent and good?  Even those willing to kill anyone who stands in the way, perhaps unknowingly?  With a pretty girl, an antagonistic troupe-mate and misinterpretations of all he hears, Tobin even has difficulties deciding who he is and where he belongs.

Coming-of-age stories tend not to be set in imaginary worlds of magical talents but Linda Smith has shown that the combination works.  What better way to depict the anger and confusion of the teen years than with a teen who has a gift for making himself unseen and for beckoning natural spirits?  Place that teen in the midst of a national conflict, seemingly pitting parents against friends, oppressor vs. the oppressed, emotions over reasoning, and Tobin must make some tough choices.  And isn't that what a coming-of-age story is all about:  making tough choices and some mistakes for the purpose of learning and maturing? In The Piper of Shadonia, Linda Smith has managed to balance Tobin's angst and subsequent development within the story of an oppressed people finding the means to stand up for themselves, all in a satisfying fantasy for young readers. 

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