Aha, the lure of a gorgeous cover. It snared me again with ‘The Twistrose Key.’ But before you judge me, just look at it. Wouldn’t it have snared you, too?
‘The Twistrose Key’ is the début novel of Tone Almhjell, a Norwegian writer, and the love of the North is inscribed all over this book. It is set partly in a wintry magical Otherworld known as Sylver, where the snow and ice is not seen (hurrah!) as a symptom of evil magic, but merely is, and the creatures who live there exist quite happily within it. The central concept of the story is lovely – Sylver is a place where creatures who were, in life, loved by a human child go when they die – and there are some moments of gorgeous writing and wonderful scene-setting. There are some memorable characters, and lots of juicy mythological/fairytale references for nerds like me to pick up on, but… But.
Is it possible for a book to try to do too much? If so, then I think ‘The Twistrose Key’ falls into that trap, just a little.
Our central (human) character is Lin Rosenquist, who has just moved into a new rented home with her parents after her mother is asked to come and work in a large, prestigious university. Thrillingly, her mother is employed as a sort of musicologist – or, at least, she examines folk and traditional music for its larger, wider meaning, which is important as the story unfolds – and I found that interesting, and different, and just up my alley. The book’s opening sentence is: ‘The grave that Lin had made for her friend could not be touched by wind’, and once we’ve been thoroughly sucked into the story by this gripping image (what grave? What friend? How can a child make a grave?) we gradually work out that ‘the friend’ is her late, lamented pet Rufus, who was (or is?) a vole of remarkable fortitude.
She returns to the house in order to eat with her parents, who give her some bad news – softened somewhat by offering her her favourite dessert of rice pudding (another thing we had in common, Lin and I) – and notices someone giving her a message through the window. When she rushes to the front door to find out who this strange messenger is, all she finds is a mysterious parcel addressed to her – but not using her given name. The parcel is addressed to ‘Twistrose’ – a name she has given herself, but which she has not told anyone else about. How can this be?
Inside the package, Lin finds a pair of keys. One opens the door to the cellar, entry to which had been forbidden by their landlady, but Lin ignores that and goes down there anyway. The second key, shaped like a rose complete with thorns, opens up a passageway through the wall of her cellar into a different world entirely. Lin finds herself in the land of Sylver – and reunited with her beloved Rufus, who is now as tall as she is, and able to speak.
Lin is a Twistrose, or a special child with power to pass between our world and that of Sylver. She is not the first – several others have been there before her, and all of them have succeeded in carrying out a special, vital task, something which only they can do. Lin’s task is perhaps the most important of all. In order for Sylver’s magic to continue, it depends on the gate which leads to the ‘real’ world being kept open – but a special boy, a Winterfyrst, with the power to do just this, is missing. Lin must find him before the night is out, or Sylver will die – and her passage back home will be closed forever.
I liked the basic plot of this book, as I’ve outlined it above. However, there was far more to the book than just this. We also had plots and counter-plots, intrigue and skulduggery from some of the animal characters; we had a whole subplot involving the boy (Isvan Winterfyrst) and his mother, who is also missing; we had the land of Nightmare, kept separate from Sylver by the Palisade which is also at the risk of failing and, thereby, wreaking havoc on the inhabitants of this pet-afterlife. We had the ‘baddie’, named the Margrave, who is mentioned throughout the book but who only appears very briefly near the end. In short, there was a lot going on.
Perhaps it’s as a result of this packed narrative, and maybe also a certain coolness and compactness of phrase which is common to a lot of Scandinavian authors, but I never really felt I got a sense of Lin. I was far more emotionally invested in Rufus, her pet, who is more roundly described and more engagingly realised than his human. I liked the fact that we have a character named Teodor – a fox, fittingly – who we’re never quite sure of; is he good, or bad? What are his motivations? I liked the writing, which – very regularly – had me nodding my head or smiling at a particularly well-turned phrase. However, there were a lot of coincidences in this story, and things popping up just when they’re needed, like a magical sled with a personality which just happens to have the power to do exactly what’s needed, right when it’s needed, which I just couldn’t buy. Also, the phrase ‘by an incredible stroke of luck’ appears at least twice. If you’re relying on ‘incredible strokes of luck’ more than once in a book, then something isn’t quite right with your plotting, I feel.
I had worked out who the Margrave was long before ‘the reveal’, and I should think any child who has read the Harry Potter books would be able to do the same. This isn’t a problem, as such – but what I wish is that there had been more time devoted to this character. Almhjell could have written a whole book based solely on the Margrave, and she could have written another based solely on Isvan Winterfyrst. This means ‘The Twistrose Key’ is complex and layered, but also frustrating in its lack of character development. The book is not short, but there’s just so much going on that some of the wonderful elements in it don’t have the room they need to breathe.
I did enjoy the book, but it wasn’t – for me – a patch on Philip Pullman or Garth Nix or J.K. Rowling or C.S. Lewis, or any of the other authors whom Almhjell seems to be modelling herself on. I will look out for her future work, and hope she doesn’t throw everything, including the kitchen sink, into her next novel.