Joan Aiken,
The Felix Brooke Trilogy #1: Go Saddle the Sea
(Doubleday, 1977; Harcourt, 2007)

Three decades after it was published, Joan Aiken's first book of Felix Brooke's adventures is back in print. This, by and large, is a good thing.

If you're unfamiliar with Aiken's books for younger readers (most famously, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase), you'll find that they read a bit like Dickensian adventure stories, full of orphans, menacing guardians, harrowing escapes and mistaken identities. But she's no Lemony Snicket: Aiken takes her story and its setting seriously, and in Go Saddle the Sea has clearly researched the politics, geography and culture of 19th-century Spain. Only a map is lacking.

The year is 1821; the setting a politically turbulent Spain. The orphaned son of an imprudent match between a British soldier and a young Spanish aristocrat, 12-year-old Felix lives with his chilly, disapproving grandfather and equally unpleasant female relatives in the remote village of Villaverde. When he unexpectedly comes into possession of some papers of his late father, he decides to seek his fortunes in England.

What follows is a series of hair-raising adventures across a colourful and perilous Spain. Felix finds himself involved with murderous provincials, robbers, blood feuds, treachery and a fabulous lost fortune that everyone mistakenly believes Felix knows where to find. But don't expect too much in the way of overarching plot -- although a few of his adventures eventually develop some cohesiveness, they are primarily linked by Felix's growth from a mischievous prankster into a courageous and likable young hero.

Taking its name from a proverb that reads, "Go saddle the sea, put a bridle on the wind, before you choose your place," this first installment of Felix's bildungsroman is a solidly written adventure story with plenty of intelligence and excitement. The 19th-century veneer adds a certain charm to the narrative. Chapter headings like "I witness a duel; and dispose of a horse; am cast into danger thereby; acquire a Feathered Timepiece; and help a Pig Farmer in a flood" are wryly Dickensian. However, the writing style may put off young readers who would otherwise find Felix an appealing protagonist: mimicking the writing conventions of 19th-century literature, Go Saddle the Sea is light on dialogue and heavily narrated by Felix himself, who sounds just a bit too formal and sophisticated for a preteen.

A bigger problem is the weak central plot and the episodic structure of the tale. Characters walk in and out of Felix's life with alacrity, and only Felix's character is fully explored. Unsurprisingly, his relationships with other characters are sketchy and somewhat superficial.

Stronger characters and a tighter plot with fewer extraneous episodes would make Go Saddle the Sea a gripping read. As it is, it's enjoyable but not particularly difficult to put down at the end of a chapter. Still, a nice touch of dry humour, an unexpected final twist and an abundance of action make this first book about Felix Brooke a good old-fashioned adventure that stands well on its own. As a bonus to her older readers and a tribute to her chosen time period, Joan Aiken even includes an extended allusion to Austen's Northanger Abbey.

review by
Jennifer Mo

25 August 2007

what's new