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Old School Wednesdays Readalong: Prospero’s Children by Jan Siegel

Old School Wednesdays is a weekly Book Smuggler feature. We came up with the idea towards the end of 2012, when both Ana and Thea were feeling exhausted from the never-ending inundation of New and Shiny (and often over-hyped) books. What better way to snap out of a reading fugue than to take a mini-vacation into the past?

Old School Wednesdays Final

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In March 2013, we asked YOU for your favorite old school suggestions – and the response was so overwhelmingly awesome, we decided to compile a goodreads shelf, an ongoing database, AND a monthly readalong/book club.

This month’s OSW Readalong pick is Prospero’s Children by Jan Siegel

We’re treating this review as a straight-up, simple review with Ana’s and Thea’s takes (instead of the usual discussion questions). We’ll give our opinions regarding the book, then we’ll ask YOU to join in.

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Prospero's ChildrenTitle: Prospero’s Children

Author: Jan Siegel

Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy

Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: First published 1999
Paperback: 352 pages

It began ages past in fabled Atlantis, when a mad, power-hungry queen forged a key to a door never meant to be opened by mortal man–its inception would hasten her own death and the extinction of her vainglorious race.

For millennia the key lay forgotten beneath the waves, lost amid the ruins of what had been the most beautiful city on Earth.

But however jealously the sea hoards its secrets, sooner or later it yields them up. Now, in present-day Yorkshire, that time has come. And for young Fernanda Capel, life will never be the same again . . .

Stand alone or series: First in the Fern Capel series

How did we get this book: Bought

Format (e- or p-): Ebook

Review:

Ana’s Take: I can’t shake this feeling that I ought to have liked this book much more than I did. I know it’s a favourite of several friends. And in many ways, it is a book that should have won me over: it’s a fantasy novel featuring Atlantis! That examines corruption, inequality and ambition and the way that those can destroy civilisations! With time travel! Kids doing dangerous things! AND a female protagonist that undergoes a brilliant character arc. Alas.

Two things stand out the most to me. The writing and the main character’s arc.
The latter is definitely what kept me reading. Fern is a fabulous main character. I liked her resolve, her sense of self and the fact that much of her arc is framed by her being on that threshold of growing up and maturity. In many ways, it’s also a coming-of-age, of realising that the world of grown-ups is different from the world of children. I liked this passage very much:

She was thinking: this is what it means to grow up, this is how it feels—to be on your own, to have no one to depend on, no one between you and the dark. Belatedly she began to appreciate how much she had always relied on her father, not perhaps on his strength but on the strength of his position, on the certainties that accompany fatherhood and maturity. She might have run the household but he had empowered her, supported her, obeyed her, kept her safe. And now, America was a long way away. She did not even have a phone number. Mrs Wicklow and the Dinsdales were good friends, but they could not deal with Alison. She needed a rock to cling to. But the rock had turned into Ragginbone and told her: Find the key, and now he had disappeared on some errand of his own. Everything seemed to depend on her, yet she did not know what to do or how to do it. She was quite alone.

In Fern, I find much to applaud: she is funny and caustic, tenacious and with a strong sense of honour.

With that said and with regards to the writing style – and I put this down to personal preference – it unfortunately prevented me from a greater engagement with the novel. Overwrought prose with over-descriptive and meandering passages which, combined with a too vague plot, made reading the book such a chore. Woe.

It’s a bit frustrating because the opening scene with the mermaid was so powerful and impacting but as the story progressed, my attention wavered with every subsequent scene. It doesn’t help that the plot and the characters’ actions seemed be propelled by an underlying sense that everything is fated to be. A lot of hand-waving came from that since the progression of the story relied a lot on “I have a feeling I must do this” that came without much explanation. Although this might have fit with the overall thrust of the premise, I still prefer my storytelling to rely less on short-hands like these.

There is a lot to Prospero’s Children that is commendable especially when it comes to the main female protagonist but ultimately, it was a miss for me. Curious to hear what everybody else thought of it.

Thea’s Take: On paper (or a computer screen?), Prospero’s Children is an irresistible book. It’s something that I should absolutely, 100%, beyond-any-trace-of-a-doubt adore. A lost city’s descendants, a forgotten key, mysterious artifacts, dangerous and sharp-edged magical creatures, and a powerful coming of age story for a young female protagonist – what’s not to love?! As in life, though, sometimes what appears to be a glorious match doesn’t actually quite fit. (And, as in life, this isn’t because of some failing of the book, but rather a lack of compatibility – which is bound to change from person to person based on tastes and reading experience.)

Such is my experience with Prospero’s Children.

I’ll start by saying that there is so much to love about this book. In fact, when I started the prologue of the novel, I was undeniably hooked on the tale of a terrifying mermaid who brings a voyaging ship to its death and who steals away one sweet sailor for her own water-logged, bloated, and eventually devoured by the sea, prize. I loved the tale of revenge that results in her most treasured shiny precious being taken by a greedy and enraged fisherman – the catalyst to this tale. And when the story proper actually starts, like Ana, I, too, loved the characterization of Fern and her brother Will, and the melange of fantasy tropes leading the siblings to their magical birthright. There are plenty of familiar, comfortable plot mechanisms at play in Prospero’s Children that are reminiscent of books and mythologies of childhood – the sensible older sibling who is too sensible for her age, the holiday to a manor house that holds many secrets within its old grounds, the wicked and glamorous would-be stepmother who is not to be trusted by her earnest would-be stepchildren. There’s a mysterious call to magical action to which the Capel children, particularly Fern, respond in order to restore balance to the force. AND, just when you think you’ve got the book figured out in (then) modern Yorkshire, it goes into way different directions to magical lands beyond.

On the characterization front, Fern is an admirable and wondrous heroine – so much more remarkable because she’s so frustratingly superior at the beginning of the book, with her propriety and exterior shell of calm reserve. I love her arc as it progresses and her world is upended – as is her expectation of life and worldview (there’s one early part of the book that lays out Fern’s expectations for life, which encompasses University, a suitable job, and a prudent marriage). I also adored little brother Will, whose imaginative scope is somewhat more flexible than Fern’s, and who I am more naturally inclined to like as a protagonist (is there a spinoff starring Will anywhere?!).

But… then there’s the part where Prospero’s Children and I simply aren’t meant to be, in the literary soulmate sense of the word.

While Jan Siegel’s prose is undeniably gorgeous, it also veers into overwrought tedious territory multiple times throughout the novel. At best, the writing is lush and lyrical; at worst, it is fanciful and, like its heroine, trying a little too hard. Similarly, while I love a story that shifts settings from the mundane world to one more magical, there is a LOT of randomness in Prospero’s Children and an abundance of coincidences/handwavy developments that just happen because they happen, without logical buildup or consequence. There’s a huge reliance on fate/destiny, which is always irritating to me personally (though your mileage may vary), and an unabashed deus ex machina to finish out the book in its last act.

It just didn’t quite work for me.

Prospero’s Children certainly isn’t a bad book; it’s got so much going for it! It simply isn’t the book for me. But maybe you’ll have had a better experience, dear readers?

Rating:

Ana: 5 – Meh

Thea: 6 – Good; but not my literary other half

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Now over to you! Please feel free to engage with our reviews, come up with your own talking points, and/or leave links to your reviews!

5 Comments

  • Sarah
    August 27, 2014 at 8:31 am

    Great to hear your take on this book, as it’s been on my TBR shelf for years and I’ve made about three or four attempts to get into it but never made much progress.

  • Karen Mahoney
    August 27, 2014 at 10:48 am

    I read this when it first came out in the UK (1998 or 99?), and remember enjoying it very much. Given your review, I’m interested to give it a re-read to see how it holds up! I loved it so much back then, I got the second book in the trilogy as soon as it was published – which actually moves forward in time to Fern as an adult. Come to think of it, I don’t remember reading the third book. Hmm… I am going to investigate! Thanks for reminding me about these books. 🙂

  • Amaryllis
    August 27, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    Yes, I thought I’d like this more than I ended up doing.

    I liked the first part, but the Atlantis segment just didn’t work for me. Partly because I dislike time-travel-loop stories, and partly because of all the “I must do this” business.

    The romance wasn’t very convincing either. They loved because they were fated to love, but I couldn’t see how they actually either knew or liked each other.

    But I did enjoy the first part, with the watcher and the wolf and the brownie– that poor creature– and all the other-wordliness lying just under the mundane landscape.

    So I got to the end, and found out that it was the first of a trilogy, because isn’t everything a trilogy. And I was interested enough in what happens next to get myself to the library and find the next two books. I haven’t read them yet, but as is my bad habit I opened them randomly at a page or two, and I am pleased to report that it looks like Will continues to be an important character.

  • Paul (@princejvstin)
    August 28, 2014 at 6:59 am

    Hello!

    I read this years ago, and the “meh” aspect overwhelmed me, too. I wanted much more than I got out of it, and subsequently did not continue the series.

  • NicoleL
    September 8, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    I read this when it came out and enjoyed it. I have no idea if I would enjoy it on a re-read (probably not), but the last book in the trilogy stands out in my memory (still!) as having a most-hated-ever ending that undermined everything I liked about Fern and ignored the logic of the worldbuilding up until then.

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