Garth Nix, The Ragwitch (HarperCollins, 1990; EOS, 2004)

'Julia screamed as she joined the Ragwitch's senses, a long, inward cry of pain. Normally, it just felt unnatural and somehow unclean, but this time, pain lanced through her and she could see only blurred, cloudy visions through the Ragwitch’s eyes.'

Whenever a writer of fiction has a hit novel, any publisher associated with him scrambles to stick their nose deeper in the trough. What this means is a sequel, and if that too is a hit, the back catalogue is raided. Sometimes this produces unseen masterpieces, while on other occasions the result is a work that, although readable, was written some time before the author had really perfected his craft. This is the case with The Ragwitch, a novel originally published in 1990, five years prior to the first publication of Sabriel, the book that made Garth Nix into a well known author, world-wide. The Ragwitch begins with two children, Julia and her brother Paul, walking on the Australian beach. They find an Aboriginal midden, on top of which is a strange nest, containing a ball of feathers. Inside the ball is a rag doll, which Julia decides to take home. By nightfall, Julia has been possessed by the spirit in the doll, and at dawn she runs off, using magic to transport herself back to the world once ruled by the Ragwitch, when she was North-Queen. Paul follows on her heels, but finds himself lost in a great forest, and soon captured by forest guardians called May Dancers.

'"Well, come and help, boy," snapped the old man. "Part of being wise is knowing the value of things. And advice got for nothing is often worthless. In your case I would say you need counselling to the value of . . . about eighty transplanted cabbages."'

The rather promising start slows down, as Paul flounders, trying to work out how he can save his sister. Julia, wakes up to find herself imprisoned inside the mind of the Ragwitch, who wastes no time in pressing ahead with her plans for conquest. This is where the novel's main problem first manifests. In straightforward terms, the sections dealing with Julia and what's going on around her are edgy and interesting, while the parts detailing Paul's quest often feel like going through the motions. It's also clear that the book was written before the author realised the power of names. Sabriel is instantly evocative, the first time I read the title, I wanted to know more. Unfortunately, most of the names here conjure the wrong images. For example, those under the thrall of the Ragwitch include bat-like creatures called Meepers, and bog-standard fantasy beasts known as Gwarulch. Meepers reminded me of the noise Roadrunner makes to Wile E. Coyote, and Gwarulch is the sound of something nasty squelching underfoot in a field full of cows. Nix rescues himself to some extent with the invincible stone knights known as the Angarling, Lyssa, the spirit of the Rowan tree, and Oroch, the North-Queen's mummy-like architect.

'"The Wild magic isn't something you can get hold of... or even control," said Lyssa. "It may be summoned, and sometimes dismissed, but what it does in between is anybody's guess."'

Julia has to contend with half-life inside the memories of the Ragwitch, and is forced to watch as she massacres villages. Meanwhile, Paul is sent to meet the Wise, which is a collective name for several individuals who dwell up a mountain. Paul discovers that in order to beat the Ragwitch, and free his sister, he must locate representatives of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, and obtain talismans from them in order to call upon the Wild Magic. He sets about the tedious task with the help of less than stellar characters, including a boy ballooner named Quigin Friend of Beasts, Sir Aleyne, and a rabbit called Leasel. Once again, Julia gets by far the better part of the plot, meeting up in mind space with Lyssa, the embodiment of the Rowan tree, and Mirran, the former King, who has been trapped as a mad savage within the Ragwitch's memories, since the North-Queen was originally defeated and cast from the world. The story evolves into Child's Play lite, mixed with Around The World in 80 Days, Dr Doolittle, and a nod to Narnia. But, frustratingly, the most inventive elements, such as the Patchwork King, the Fire Queen and the May Dancers, are underused. If Garth Nix were to write this book today, it would probably be brilliant. As things stand, The Ragwitch is an older work, which may work best for pre-teen children. For adults, it's peering right along the average mark.

[Nathan Brazil]