I hope it’s a bright and beautiful Saturday where you are; if not, then maybe this review will bring a bit of sunshine into your life.
Today, I’ll be talking about Lauren Oliver’s beautiful book ‘The Spindlers’.
Ms. Oliver is a noted author of both children’s and YA novels, though I have yet to read any of her books for older readers. I’ve been wanting to pick up some of her work for a while now, and when I saw the beautiful cover art on ‘The Spindlers’, I knew it was coming home with me. Plus, the story is about a young girl who braves the terrors of the underworld to rescue her little brother’s soul – what more could any book promise?
Lauren Oliver’s book not only promises much, but it delivers too. I really enjoyed ‘The Spindlers’, and if you sit tight and behave, I’ll tell you why.
So. ‘The Spindlers’ introduces us to Liza Elston and her younger brother Patrick, who live with their parents in a normal house on a normal street in a normal town. Their parents are loving and kind, but also stressed and overworked and tired and have little time to play or have fun anymore. The kids’ beloved babysitter Anna has just gone off to college, and they both miss her terribly; they talk about her to one another and they remember her as being fun, a teller of great stories and an inventor of brilliant games – but, most importantly, she has always given them excellent advice about the nastier things in life, things that lurk in the dark and which want to steal away children’s souls. Following her directions to the letter, the children stay safe for a very long time, but then one day Patrick forgets to take precautions, and he’s claimed by the fearsome Spindlers… and so our tale begins.
Despite the fact that she doesn’t actually appear in the book, Anna is one of its most important characters. Her wisdom and love for Liza and Patrick shine through the whole thing, and at times of crisis Liza remembers the lessons taught to her not only by her parents but also by Anna, and it’s actually Anna, who (somehow) has an intimate knowledge of the workings of the world Below who gives Liza the most help on her quest. It’s not even important that we don’t find out how, and why, Anna is so knowledgeable about the other world; she’s like a good witch, or a fairy godmother. She gives love and advice and guidance, expecting nothing in return, and even in her absence she is a force for good. Liza, too, is a wonderful character – strong and brave and intelligent, she knows straight away that her brother’s soul has been taken by the terrible Spindlers, creatures who are half-spider and half-human, and who are so awful that they’re feared even by the other creatures who live in the underworld. She is not fooled by the fact that a changeling is left in Patrick’s place, a being which moves and looks and sounds like her brother – she knows it’s not him, and she knows what she has to do to save him.
Having found the entrance to the underworld, she meets a huge variety of strange and wonderful creatures, including a rat who wears a wig (as well as rouge and lipstick) who acts as her unofficial guide; troglods, little brown, scuttling creatures who buy and sell all those objects humans ‘lose’ in the world Above and which somehow find their way Below; scawgs, shapechanging horrors who try to lure you in by tempting you with gorgeous food that makes you hungrier the more you eat of it, and the beautifully described nocturni, or dream-bringers, of which every soul has one, paired together for all eternity. The journey itself is reminiscent of a lot of quest narratives – a guide is found, trust is built up between them (but is it misplaced?), tests are encountered, terror is faced up to, threats which are mentioned in passing end up becoming horrifying reality, and the rules of the otherworld are broken by the intruding human to interesting narrative effect. The gradual building up of the relationship between Liza and Mirabella (her rouge-wearing rat guide) is wonderfully done – the initial disgust and mistrust between them slowly warming into friendship before hitting a seemingly insurmountable barrier – and the complicated feelings Liza has for her little brother are realistically, and touchingly, described. The feats of imagination on the part of the author are wonderful, particularly with regard to the nocturni, which are truly beautiful creations.
Liza must face a test near the end of the book, a test which has three parts. The last part sees her tempted by a ‘perfect’ family, one who promises to love and treasure her, to pay her attention and play with her. They tell her they’re better than her family Above, who are too busy and too stressed and preoccupied by bills and jobs and problems to take proper care of her. In this respect, the book reminded me a little of Neil Gaiman’s masterful ‘Coraline’, in which the Other Mother tempts Coraline to stay with her for much the same reason; of course, our heroines in both cases see through this temptation, and realise how much they love their own families in the process. Another theme I relished in this book is one of justice vs injustice, a topic which was close to my heart as a youngster – Liza is unfairly judged by the Court of Stones on her way through the underworld, and then near the end of the book the Spindler Queen does not keep her part of a bargain – and the sense of rage and unfairness is deftly handled. Not only does it serve to underline the evil of Liza’s enemies, but it also drives the reader to empathise even more with her desperate plight.
Some of the ideas in this book will be familiar and dearly-loved territory to readers, like me, who love mythology and are interested in story structure and motifs; even if you’re not a nerd like me, though, the book is beautiful. What makes it so especially lovely is Ms. Oliver’s use of language; her imagery sparkles at times and she doesn’t dumb down her vocabulary or descriptive touches. I really like that in a children’s author – a person who’s not afraid to stretch young readers with long and delicious words is, to my mind, a good children’s author.
I thoroughly enjoyed ‘The Spindlers’ – there’s enough terror and peril there to keep even the most bloodthirsty reader happy, and there’s enough wonder and beauty there to charm the rest. As well as that, the over-arching themes – loyalty, love, bravery, facing up to challenges, digging deep within yourself for strength you didn’t even know was there – are delightful. I’d recommend this book if you know any 8/9+ readers in search of a gripping story, and I challenge you not to dip in and have a read yourself…
Happy Saturday! Enjoy, relax, put your feet up and read.