Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Black Hearts in Battersea

The strange algorithms of Amazon recommended a book to me a few years ago: The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken.  I had never heard of it, but it seemed interesting enough.

That is an understatement.

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase is an unbelievably fun and charming book set in an alternate England, where James III rules, the Hanoverian Pretender plots to retake the throne, and wolves run amok over the isle of Britain.  No, I'm not being metaphorical: wolves, like in a pack, with sharp teeth and slashing claws and shaggy pelts.  The whole nine yards of wolves.

Plus cover art by Edward Gorey?  I'm in book nerd HEAVEN.
Black Hearts in Battersea is one of Aiken's Wolves books, but I wouldn't say you need to have read TWoWC first.  This book follows Simon, an orphan who befriended Bonnie and Sylvia, the protagonists of the first book.  After triumphing over evil, as one does in a charming novel such as this, he sets out for London to meet his friend, Dr. Field, and study painting, for which he has a rather astonishing talent.

But strange and dangerous schemes are afoot in London, and Simon walks, completely unwittingly, into them.  First, there's the mysterious way in which he arrives at the lodgings described by Dr. Fields.  Then, there's Dido: a spunky, slightly whiny, opinionated urchin who knows more than she lets on.  In loco parentis (can a child act in loco parentis???), she takes on Simon as a boarder while Mum, Dad, and sister Penelope Twite are out on the town.

After enrolling at the art academy and making friends with a smithy named Cobb, Simon also discovers that his friend Sophie is lady's-maid to the Duchess of Battersea.  The Duke, in a curious turn of events utterly befitting his eccentric yet kindly demeanor, meets Simon and invites him to Battersea Castle to play chess.  Meanwhile, the Hanoverian plot to assassinate the King and his loyal friends, the Duke and Duchess of Battersea, slowly encircles Simon.

Aiken has written a rollicking joy of a book, with a very Dickensian charm (she even borrows at least one name--Turveytop--from my very favorite Dickens, Bleak House).  Pick up this book and you will be holding an adventure involving hot air balloons, muskets, strange men who play the hoboy (oboe), donkeys, dynamite, shipwrecks, mistaken identities, mince pies, opera fires, and the King's saucy talking bird!  And that's not even the half of it.

Simon manages to be completely likable but also interesting and imperfect, and Sophie is impish and clever.  Dido charms and irritates, and I just want to give the Duke of Battersea a good hug and then challenge him to a snowball fight.

This series deserves far more recognition than it has received, and I talk it up whenever possible at work.  Hunt for this one and be rewarded!  And watch out for the wolves!

2 comments:

  1. Joan Aiken is wonderful! If you haven't read it yet, I recommend The Stolen Lake, in which Dido Twite has to do something about the theft of the lake into which King Arthur threw his sword... I won't tell you more, because spoilers, but it was very funny and tells you still more about this universe. Her short stories are also great. I love the way her characters simply take it for granted that a unicorn might turn up in your garden or the kindergarten teacher is a fairy or that someone is raising money to hrlp the home for retired fairies.

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    1. I wish her books were easier to find! I'm currently trolling Abe Books for all the Aiken!

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