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The Iron Tree

Cecilia Dart-Thornton

Tor / Pan Macmillan

UK Hardback

ISBN 1-4050-4710-0

Publication Date: 19-11-2004

425; £17.99

Date Reviewed: 7-12-2004

Reviewed by: Stephanie Cage © 2004

The Iron Tree

Cecilia Dart-Thornton


US Hardback

ISBN 1-765-31205-0

Publication Date: 02-15-2005

400 Pages; $23.99

Date Reviewed: 7-12-2004

Reviewed by: Stephanie Cage © 2004




In 'The Iron Tree' (Book One of the Crowthistle Chronicles), Cecilia Dart-Thornton draws on an impressively wide range of influences from fairytale and folklore, including folk tales from Yorkshire, Lancashire, Ireland and the Fens, as well as a smattering of Norse legend. (A word of warning here: the references at the back of the book, while fascinating, contain something of a plot spoiler, so stay away from them until after finishing the story.) One of the book's most extraordinary features is its vivid depiction of a whole host of supernatural apparitions, from spectral riders in the desert to weeping maidens in the marshes.

Dart-Thornton convincingly evokes a society used to coexisting with magical creatures, spells and sorcery. When we first meet Jarred, the book's attractive and intrepid hero, he is agonising over the use of a protective amulet, which is one of his few ties to his dead father. He's been told it bestows invulnerability on the wearer - a useful trait when the land you are travelling is beset with half-human bandits known as 'Marauders' as well as various 'eldritch wights', both 'seelie' (benign or even helpful) and 'unseelie' (malicious). Jarred would prefer a fair fight without supernatural protection, but ultimately his promise to his dead father carries more weight than the pricking of his conscience, and the amulet stays on.

Determined to prove himself the equal of his unprotected friends, he takes on all the dangerous tasks. Initially, in the safety of his village home, these are fairly insignificant, such as retrieving a telescope from the desert before its absence is missed. However, when he sets off with a group of village lads on a quest to see the world and learn more of his dead father, they encounter ever more dramatic dangers.

They also encounter Lilith, an innocent beauty with a sword of Damocles hanging over her in the form of the madness which afflicted her grandfather and her mother, and which her family are beginning to suspect may be inherited. The portrayal of the mad grandfather is delightful, and seems to owe a great deal to Hamlet in his mad phase. The grandfather doesn't quite mention hawks and handsaws, but 'they say the conger is a candle-maker's daughter' is surely the Marsh equivalent of 'they say the owl is the baker's daughter.' Lilith and her mother recall Ophelia in their bewildered helplessness in the face of madness, as well as their love of wild flowers, which brings to mind Millais' Ophelia.

Not surprisingly, Jarred falls instantly in love with the beautiful Lilith and eventually finds himself adopting a new quest: to find out the origins and cure of her family's affliction. In the course of his two quests, Jarred learns something of the truth about his family origins, but the information soon puts both him and his beloved in further jeopardy, leading to an extraordinary but believable series of adventures.

The city lowlifes to whom he turns for assistance are also well-drawn, with a very Shakespearean blend of caricature and pathos. Fionnuala, in particular, both touches and repels the reader with her mixture of genuine devotion and sheer selfishness.

The romance of Jarred and Lilith is a complicated story, summed up by the narrator in the Prologue as:

'A chronicle of jealousy and revenge, of wickedness and justice, and of love. It is an extraordinary tale, extraordinary and tragic; yet there is no tragedy from which some goodness doth not arise, as the green shoot doth sprout from the cold ashes of the wildfire.'

Thankfully, the verbose narrator then disappears until the Epilogue, where he makes a brief appearance, which demonstrates that tragedians weeping at their own stories are every bit as annoying as comedians laughing at their own jokes.

Prologue and Epilogue aside, Dart-Thornton achieves a largely convincing pseudo-medieval style. Poetic descriptions (somewhat reminiscent of Keats, whose poem 'St Agnes' Eve' was an inspiration for some aspects of the book) coexist comfortably with everyday actions in passages such as this:

"In the western skies the sun was liquefying in rivers of iridescent pink and gold, the usual splendour of a desert sunset, by the time the boys finished devising and practising their tactics for winning the football game."

However, the peppering of archaisms like 'naught' and 'gramercie' occasionally becomes irritating, as do linguistic tics like the characters' continual use of the phrase 'The knowledge is not at me,' which by the end of the book left me yearning for a simple 'I don't know'.

If 'The Iron Tree' has a fault, it is the impression it sometimes gives that the author is trying too hard. All the ingredients of great epic fantasy are here: evil sorcerers, curses, ghosts, amulets, magic jewels, a powerful hero and a helpless heroine, described in flowing poetic language. This has the unfortunate result that at times the book seems to have been written by following a recipe for a fantasy bestseller. First catch your wizard...