I think the best indication of my response to HG Parry’s, The Magician’s Daughter, is that I cannot wait to be able to give this book to my own daughter. This is, unashamedly, just a story about growing up, with a fairly straightforward plot, but it’s also cleverly constructed, immaculately paced and the prose is as lean and sleek as a greyhound. There are obvious shades of Howl’s Moving Castle as it opens, and the ghosts of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations thread through as well, but heroine Biddy cuts through the background as an incredibly solid and timeless character.
Biddy, sixteen, grounded on the shores of the enchanted island of Hy-Brasil as a baby, and was taken in and raised by a magician and his rabbit familiar. She has lived a life defined by magic and fairy tales, though she herself is separated from magic. She has never left the island, though the magician, Rowan, does so all the time, transforming himself into a raven and flying away. He promises that she can too, when the time is right. Rowan keeps things from Biddy, but she never doubts that he loves her. But when, inevitably, the secrets he’s been keeping come crashing home to their hidden island, that love is tested to breaking, as Biddy and Rowan both have to head into an unforgiving Victorian London to save the magic they’ve been hiding in all these years.
The whole story is cleverly told in small spaces. The enchanted otherworld is just a small island, and the magical castle at its centre is a ruin, and only a few small rooms can be lived in. Outside the island, the story occupies tight, windowless cells, endless chimney shafts, cramped dormitories and neat, close drawing rooms. Even the characters themselves find agency to overcome their challenges only by literally shrinking into the bodies of birds. Everything reminds us of how small Biddy’s world is as she teeters on the brink of adulthood. For Biddy, magic is what it means to be an adult, and she’s been brought up knowing that magic is something she can never have. And yet, she understands it, makes use of it, and—in her heart—is waiting for it to suddenly show up and tell her who she really is. But magic is leaving the world. And as time goes on and every adult around her—all magical—proves less reliable, less solid, especially her beloved Rowan, the rewards of growing up drain from the world as well. This book is at its most beautiful when revealing the fears and insecurities of that moment when childhood is definitely, finally and naturally ending, and looking honestly at what disillusionment about who our parents actually are does to you. Even after all the action of the plot is resolved, the realities of finding out that the parent you thought embodied everything it meant to be full-grown and unquestionably good is anything but, dominate the takeaway of this remarkable book. Still, love abides.
My own child is 13 (at time of writing) and I can think of no better story to help her understand that feeling of being small that never seems to go away, and to recognise it in me as much as it is in her. A future classic.
Thanks to HG Parry and Little, Brown Book Group UK for sending me this advance copy.