11 February 2010

The Puzzle Ring by Kate Forsyth

I recently finished reading The Puzzle Ring by Kate Forsyth. She's an author I wasn't familiar with before, and I'm glad to have met her through this blog tour. For other stops on her blog tour, check out the list The Bookette helpfully put together.

The novel concerns protagonist Hannah Rose, who discovers by accident that her mother had spirited her away from a birthright in Scotland. The strong willed lass immediately demands that her mother return her to Scotland, and succeeds. Hannah then begins a relationship with the great-grandmother she didn't know she had; she investigates the mystery of her father's disappearance; and she sets out to break a curse that's doomed her family for over 400 years... which takes her back to that very time.

As a girl raised on tales from Nancy Drew and C.S. Lewis, the cadence of the story and the reliance on a child to do the work of an adult were a comfortable fit for me. I'd recommend the story for any young girls interested in the supernatural, especially if it keeps them away from sappy vamp lit. The plethora of mythical and magical creatures - selkies, blue men, imps and the Unseelie Court - reminds me also of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon,

I particularly loved the portrayal of the past as not a romantic tourist promenade, but a dangerous and uncouth time in which people lived very differently than we do now; eating rarely, and storing clothes near the toilet. As a traveler to the past, Hannah's reflections on the distance separating her from her present and on how terribly her manners suit the time she finds herself in are beautiful expositions which further the story. These reflective moments on Hannah's part also serve as proxy to her transition from childhood to adult.

Thanks Scholastic for the review copy, and thanks Kate for the time for the interview!

I asked a few questions of Kate Forsyth to better understand the book:
Scottish history is, like that of many countries, full of bloodshed and horror as well as heroes and glory. How much did you think about representing both aspects of this history - the proud moments and the desperate?
It was very important to me to try and make the history seem as real as possible. One of my strongest dislikes has always been fantasy that sets its story in a quasi-medieval world that somehow does not smell like medieval times. I think fantasy must be rooted very deeply into the real if it’s going to work well. There’s always a balancing act between keeping the pace moving strongly and giving enough vivid detail to bring the world and the times to life, and so I hope I managed to keep all the balls in the air. I wanted to show just how very dangerous it was for Hannah and her friends to go back in time, because the world of the 16th century is far more barbaric, ruthless and fraught with danger than the world of most middle-class teenagers today. Also, for me, it was important to show both the high points and the low points of the story of Mary, Queen of Scots, herself. Her story is so compelling and so tragic because there is such a contrast between her days as the most beautiful and powerful women in the world and the end of her life as a poor captive who has her head cut off by her cousin.

There are a few subtle references to elitism in the book; for example, Hannah's mother Rose is unhappy by the way her mother in law treats her household help, and scorns the prospect of taking on the title she is entitled to by marriage. After a few references to this, though, Roz never mentions it again. I'm left with an impression of her character as being somewhat indecisive. Can you speak about this characterization of Roz?

I certainly don’t see Roz as a particularly forceful character – she gives in to her daughter Hannah on almost every front – but I also think she had a very hard time, losing her husband when Hannah was only a day old and living in a house in which she felt like an outsider. I think Roz was always rather overwhelmed by the Countess of Wintersloe, who is a very strong personality, and who, besides, believes in all sorts of strange uncanny things that Roz believes firmly to be complete and utter rubbish. The two are diametrically opposed which makes for great conflict. I think that Roz is gradually won over by Lady Wintersloe, and by the warm and loving relationship she has with her cook, and by the magical atmosphere of the house itself. Roz went to Wintesloe Castle very reluctantly – she had sworn never to return there – but after a while she stops protesting so much and by the end I think she is glad to be there.
The scenes written with Queen Mary were fabulous; I loved the contrast of her as the glamorous life of the party with her later appearances, crying and captured. I admired very much how you distilled what is a long and complex tale of her life into very few references that still gave substance to her character, and provided interest without overwhelming Hannah's tale. Are there other historical subjects you would like to cover in future stories?
Mary, Queen of Scots in "white mourning"Oh, absolutely! So many stories of the past that intrigue me. In my earlier novel, ‘The Gypsy Crown’, the action is set during the English Civil War which was just as fascinating and dangerous. All the action takes place in the last three weeks of Oliver Cromwell’s life, and I’d love to write a sequel to that which looks at England in the time of the Great Fire and the plague. Then, I’d also love to write more Puzzle Ring stories – I can see Hannah and Donovan and Max and Scarlett meeting Bonnie Prince Charlie ... or perhaps being caught up in the Highland Clearances, a time of great grief and trouble ... or even, perhaps, helping Robert Louis Stephenson come up with the plotline of ‘Kidnapped’ ... I have so many ideas!
I previously read Diana Gabaldon's Outlander and enjoyed the time travel and magical elements in her writing, but they were much more in the background of the story rather than being center-stage as they are in The Puzzle Ring. Is there something about Scotland that is drawing such literary attention?
Scotland is a storyteller’s dream. So much history, so many fairy tales and battles and love stories and ghosts. I was brought up on them all, thanks to my Scottish forebears, and love the idea of bringing some of them to life. Why are stories set in Scotland so popular? Perhaps because there are so many people, scattered all over the world, who have Scottish blood in them. Perhaps because it still seems like a wild, lonely, mysterious place when so much of the world is built over with cities and fast food joints. I don’t know - I only know that I love to read books set in Scotland!
I would have really enjoyed this story when I was a tween - it would have fit right in with my collection of Jane Yolen and Narnia books. Reading it as an adult, it seemed like a very feminine book; there's few men in Hannah's life, she concerns herself with "typical" girl concerns of hair and makeup and fashion, and her dynamics with Scarlett aren't ones I've seen my sons endure with their friends. Do you think a boy might enjoy this book as much as a girl, and why?

I’m glad you enjoyed the book and I love you comparing it to Jane Yolen & C.S. Lewis as they are two of my all-time favourite authors!

I’m intrigued, though, by your comment re the femininity of the book. There are as many boys as girls in the story – Hannah and Scarlett versus Donovan and Max – while Hannah’s father and the old gillie Angus help balance out the Roz/Linnet/Lady Wintersloe triangle. And I don’t really see Hannah as being very interested in hair and makeup and fashion at all – I think Scarlett is, definitely, but Hannah very much goes her own way. Apart from liking to wear a beret, of course.

I do like the idea of both boys and girls reading my books. I remember when I was a child, my sister and my brother and I all read the same books and we all played the same games – pretending to be in Narnia, or to be the Famous Five, or having sword fights in the back garden. I worry about the modern trend to write books about princesses and fairies for girls, and spies and gadgets for boys – children that don’t read the same books and play the same games will not have an imaginative landscape they can share. Certainly lots of boys read my books, because they come along to my public appearances and ask me questions and bring their books for me to sign. Though now I come to think of it, I get a lot more fan mail from girls!

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BeckyS said...

Great post. I really enjoyed reading this book.