Joan Aiken,
The Felix Brooke Trilogy #2: Bridle the Wind
(Delacourte, 1983; Harcourt, 2007)

Felix Brooke is back! Aiken's second book starring her plucky young hero picks up shortly after the events of Go Saddle the Sea. Having had his fill of England, 13-year-old Felix sets out once again for Spain, only to be shipwrecked on an island off the coast of France. While on the beach, he experiences a disturbing premonition -- and a hard knock on the head.

Three months later, Felix awakens from a near-catatonic state in the island's monastery, cared for by kindly Cistercian monks. However, Felix's knack for attracting adventure is not about to fail him, even in this remote locale. The abbot, Father Vespasian, is a fiery-eyed man whose miraculous healing abilities are matched by his cruelty and lunacy -- or worse. And then, soon after his own recovery, Felix saves the strange boy of his vision from being hanged by his captors. But with Father Vespasian's unwelcome attention upon him and his enemies all about, young Basque aristocrat Juan Esparza is far from safe in the monastery. Felix, obeying the hand of destiny (to say nothing of the voice of God), offers to accompany Juan to safety in Spain.

Of course, it's not easy. This being an Aiken book, there are plenty of narrow escapes, treachery, unlikely coincidences and colorful characters along the way. Juan and Felix's harrowing night-time flight from the monastery is a terrifically cinematic scene, and it's followed by many others as the two make their way across the Pyrenees with their enemies close behind.

Atmospheric and suspenseful, Bridle the Wind is a definite improvement over Go Saddle the Sea. Although still episodic, it's darker and more tightly written, with a decades-old love triangle -- er, quartet -- subplot providing crucial links between characters. The complex friendship between the poetic, prickly Juan and the pragmatic Felix (who, one suspects, may be a bit thick as well as kind-hearted and courageous) is subtle and well-observed and gives the book the solid emotional backbone its predecessor lacked. Cultural details, particularly of Basque rituals and celebrations, are bountiful and vividly described. Thanks to Juan, there's even a certain amount of Basque poetry, translations included.

Do, however, be prepared to put up with some melodrama incurred by dying penitents, impromptu exorcisms, uncanny weather patterns and other acts of God. The Gothic elements, entirely appropriate for a book set four years after Frankenstein was written, are fun in a slightly over-the-top way. What may be more off-putting for some readers is that Bridle the Wind is far more religious than the first book. However, God -- when he speaks -- makes a pleasant enough character to slip just under the radar of religious didacticism.

Like its forerunner, this second Felix Brooke adventure stands well on its own, while leaving just enough open for a third book. Go ahead, judge Bridle the Wind by its splendidly spooky new cover. It's a fine romp through 19th-century Europe with plenty to recommend itself to young fantasy and suspense readers.

review by
Jennifer Mo

22 September 2007

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