Meredith Ann Pierce, Treasure at the Heart of the Tanglewood (Firebird, 2002)
This is a sumptuous book, with all the good things expected from Meredith Ann Pierce and all the flaws.
Her strength shows quickly; she writes with a lush, poetic prose, full of uncommon words and odd, new turns of phrase. Yet, while poetic prose can turn muddy even in skilled hands, this book remains clear, easy to read. While she uses words outside of the usual vocabulary of her intended teenage audience chevron, febrile, dilapidated, certitude it is always with enough context that any reader can grasp the meaning. While she strives for elegant description, she keeps her mind on the characters and the story, and the plot moves briskly.
This is the story of Hannah, a girl raised by a wizard in a tangled old forest. The story opens at the point when she begins to question all the things she has been told. And the questions are many why, for instance, do none of her animal companions remember their life before they came to the forest, though they all agree they came to the wood from elsewhere? Why does an everchanging collection of herbs and flowers grow among the tresses of her hair? And darkest of all, there is the wizard, who is more sinister than once she thought.
Hannah begins a long quest, first to find out the truth of the treasure in the tanglewood, then to face down the wizard, then to heal an enchantment, and lastly to learn who and what she truly is. Each separate branch of the quest is marked by a colour, and a matching change in Hannah's hair and clothing.
The reader will quickly grasp the pattern of these colours, and, indeed, will guess Hannah's true nature long before the characters ever do. This is a common weakness with Meredith Ann Pierce. Many of her stories seem to involve a character who is slow to comprehend things the reader has guessed long since, until some climactic revelation. In Hannah's case, at least, it is understandable; the wizard has kept her in deliberate ignorance for all her lifetime, and often, in her quest, she finds only piecemeal clues to the answers of her questions.
Still, it is sometimes irksome to see the character conveniently dismiss a clue, or fail to ask a question only because the author is not ready to give away the game. While reading, these moments often slip by, as the story moves briskly onward, but the story is too full of coincidences that seem too convenient after the fact, and actions which seem contrived.
Nevertheless, Hannah's journey is a compelling read, as she crosses over a rich and varied countryside. The setting is full of details of touch and taste and smell, as well as the ever-present and symbolic colours. Even minor characters have their own voices and manners, and though sometimes they slip in and out of the story by the author's contriving, once on the page, they act a great deal more waywardly, showing strong and sometimes amusing differences of opinion.
This tends to be the one thing that gets passed by most often. A poetic and symbolic story, however smooth a read, is rarely described as amusing. But here there are characters and events which are playful, even silly, in the midst of sorrow and searching. This streak of lightness is another of the book's greatest strengths, along with a countryside that breathes, and some of the most gorgeous writing to be found.
Meredith Ann Pierce's Web Site can be found here.