Margaret Mahy is an excellent writer of novels for children. A native of New Zealand, she’s written many that I’ve enjoyed, including “Alchemy,” “Catalogue of the Universe,” “Changeover,” and “The Tricksters.” This book, the latest of hers I’ve seen, was apparently written to accompany a BBC television series, though it’s not clear to me if the series was made from the book, or the book from the series.
It doesn’t matter — it’s a great read, and I had no sense of missing something by never having seen the series. Mahy’s books are all different from each other in many ways. For instance, they run the spectrum of fantasy from “lots” to “just a little,” while always having strong characters in believable settings. “Maddigan’s Fantasia” is in the “lots” category, though perhaps with a higher amount of science fiction than fantasy this time.
Garland Maddigan is part of a small traveling circus in a future time after great wars have leveled civilization as we know it, and after a time of Chaos, now passing into a time of gradual rebuilding. They traverse a land that is mostly a collection of isolated towns surrounded by forests, deserts and wetlands full of danger. And the towns themselves are also dangerous, as the circus often finds. The book begins with an attack on the circus by a gang of motorcycle-riding bandits that brings tragedy to Garland and her family. If this weren’t enough, it also brings the arrival of three strange children from the future, in search of a way to change their past, and two sinister men in pursuit of them. The children are invited to join the circus, though they bring trouble to it, but also helpful skills of magic.
This book is full of fascinating detail and rich with events, yet never seems overcrowded or confusing. At first it’s an episodic tale, with each new chapter bringing the circus to a new town and new dangers, but the through-line of the children from the future and their pursuers gradually increases the tension and suspense until it takes over much of the story’s drama. And behind all this are the ever-changing relationships between the circus members, and the people they meet on their travels, as they try to fulfill a quest of their own that will bring needed energy to their home town.
My only very minor disappointment is that the circus activities and skills don’t get much attention. For instance, we’re told repeatedly that Garland is a skilled tight-rope walker, but we only get to see her in action at the very end. Considering how much story is crammed into this book, I can forgive that.
Highly recommended to any reader who enjoys a good read with fine characters and a plot that grows ever more engaging.