Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Review: Secret of the Sirens - Julia Golding

Extent: 416 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Pub Date: 3rd August 2006

When Connie is sent to live with her aunt, she knows it's going to be one more place where she doesn't fit in. But soon she realises how wrong she is. The seaside town is full of adults and children who have strange links to creatures. It's the heart of the secret Society for the Protection of Mythical Creatures, a group of people sworn to ensure that mythical beasts are kept safe. Normally the creatures and their chosen humans work in harmony. But something abnormal is happening here. The Sirens, who for generations have kept their deadly song to themselves, are once again luring humans to their deaths. It doesn't take long for Connie to realise that the victims are oil workers. The Sirens are fed-up with their seas being polluted, but should the Society protect the Sirens or the oil industry? Connie doesn't think she has a role to play, until it becomes clear that she's a Universal - the first person in over a century who can communicate with every type of beast on earth and in the air. Her power is immense. It corrupted the previous Universal... and now he's back. And he'll use any means he can - from violence to the terrifying Storm Giants - to turn Connie to the dark side.

I’m a huge fan of the pencil sketch at the start of every chapter – it’s one of my favourite aspects of Angie Sage’s Septimus Heap series – so when I opened up this book and saw the first pencil sketch I was immediately inclined to like it and I have to say the actual words in the book didn’t dim my inclination at any point. In fact, they enhanced it. What I particularly like about Julia Golding’s writing is that it’s peppered with beautiful turns of phrase and wonderfully original metaphors. Just when you think the writing might be dipping into the average a little thrill runs up your spine and tingles in your brain when you discover a new way to express something, like an antidote to the cliché.

The pace of Secret of the Sirens is not as fast as an all guns blazing action thriller but it doesn’t need to be because this is a mystery and the pace is just right to keep you wanting more without giving everything away too quickly. I have to compliment the dialogue too as it’s not the sort that just pads out a story, it’s the sort that moves the plot along efficiently so you’re hanging on to what each character is saying as it’s all relevant. The only complaint I really have is that I spent the entire book scratching my head and trying to work out how old the children were. I’m the kind of reader that likes to be told explicitly on the first page how old the lead characters are so I know how they should be thinking and feeling but by the last page of Secret of the Sirens I still couldn’t tell you for sure. By the nature of the dialogue and the way they acted, I had guessed they were about thirteen or fourteen but then when I saw the school they were going to was called Hescombe Primary School that threw me into a spin of confusion as they couldn’t be older than ten or eleven. They must just be an extremely mature ten or eleven!

Anyway, gripe over, this story is not just your average mythical creature tale. You won’t find the highly fashionable if slightly overused unicorns, elves and griffins. Oh no. Here be rock dwarves, weather giants and of course sirens which traditionally are foul and monstrous but in Secret of the Sirens Julia Golding turns them into more complex and almost beautiful creatures. In fact, all the mythical creatures become more complex as their natures, thoughts and histories are conveyed to the reader through their bonds with the companions. It’s almost like the enigma that we attach to mythical creatures is gradually decoded through the pages of Secret of the Sirens and they acquire a third dimension as characters. And it’s not just the creatures that are examined in depth, this book deals with serious environmental issues, using the mythical creatures as a metaphor for real endangered species and demonstrating the callous disregard of large, greedy corporations. In fact, it can get a bit Greenpeace at times and it’s the fact that the story deals with mythical creatures that reminds you of the fiction and the magic that’s really at the heart of this book.

So, in all, apart from a few niggles, I really liked Secret of the Sirens and I’ll definitely be reading the rest of the books in The Companions Quartet. The intricacies of the writing are a real highlight for me as well as the originality of the story. Most of the mysteries are solved by the end of the book but one that remains is exactly what age group this book is aimed at. The characters must be ten or eleven but they sound older and this paradox is matched by the fact that the language is quite complex and yet in some places becomes very quaint – it’s almost like nobody can decide. However, if you can get over this, the story holds its own and I have to stress that I had far more brain tingles than I did head scratches.

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