Dickinson, Peter. The Ropemaker. Delacorte, 2001. ISBN 0385729215. $15.95.376 pp. Reviewer: Janet Francis Reading Level: Young Adult Rating: Excellent Genre: Fiction; Occult fiction Subject: Magic--Juvenile fiction; Fantasy fiction, English--Juvenile fiction; Old age--Juvenile fiction; Books-- Reviews Sporting yet another honor (Honor Book for the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature), Dickinson once more sets out to beguile, possibly even teach the eager reader who is willing to apply mind and attention to this well crafted prose and cunningly organized text. This time the tale begins in a Scandinavian-type community. Close to cedars and water and not far from mountains, it is a kind of valley protected by ancient magic on both ends, enhanced by traditional participation in the magic's requirement. But the valley doesn't have much magic of its own, and the protection is beginning to fail as the mother of one of the protagonists finds when she is incapacitated while trying to perform her own magic task. If the magic runs out, the valley will be over-run by soldiers from the Empire, the crops and women ravaged, and the men killed. The answer to the dilemma, of course, is a quest, but the participants in this quest are a little unusual: a young woman, a young man, a bad-tempered old woman, an old man, and a recalcitrant donkey. Animals play an important part in the progress, but there are no obvious talking ones, and their position on the wrong-right scale is hard to judge.Their quest to retrieve the magician who originally gave the valley its safe spells takes the group over many miles and through the wicked Empire, where there is carefully controlled magic. Among other interesting bits of philosophy available on this journey comes the explanation that there is natural magic in the form of natural forces, trees, clouds, and light, and that there is also managed magic which magicians can learn, use, and control. There are also people who can neutralize magic and make it ineffective. Tilja, the young woman, finally finds that she is able to do this, but throughout the journey she had believed she had no magical talent whatsoever. Dickinson's prose is spare and dense; this is not a fantasy for easy reading. On the other hand, the characters become commanding early on, and the action is never standard. The final few pages are a little disappointing, with a slightly clumsy promise of a sequel; however, this book is not to be missed in a young adult collection.
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