Joan Aiken,
Nightbirds on Nantucket
(Houghton Mifflin, 1966; 1994)

The Hanoverians are up to new tricks in Nightbirds on Nantucket, the third installment of Joan Aiken's Wolves Chronicles.

When last seen, Dido Twite was bravely clinging to a broken spar as she floated in the ocean. In the opening chapter of Nightbirds, she sleeps in a box of straw on the deck of the Sarah Casket, a whaler out of Nantucket, the crew of which plucked her from the water. Young crew member Nate Pardon tends to her during her long slumber.

When Dido awakens, she finds that she is half a world away from home, and it may be another year before she can get back to England. The news is distressing, but Dido soon receives a challenge to distract her: to lure the captain's daughter, Dutiful Penitence, out of the cabin where she has concealed herself since her mother's death. Captain Casket is a somber but kind man, but he has his own agenda; he seeks a pink whale with a fervor akin to Captain Ahab for Moby Dick, although without the cetacidal tendencies.

Dido applies herself to her new task and soon proves intriguing enough for Dutiful Penitence to emerge. Dutiful -- or Pen, as Dido calls her -- is afraid of everything, but what frightens her most is the prospect of having to stay with her Aunt Tribulation, whom she's not seen since she was 3.

Outside the captain's cabin, there's intrigue afoot on the Sarah Casket. The first mate, Mr. Slighcarp, behaves suspiciously, and Dido literally stumbles across a stowaway as well. It isn't until they arrive at Nantucket that they are embroiled in a Hanoverian plot. It involves Aunt Tribulation, who seems to be every bit as bad as Pen remembers, and worse, a curious gentleman who is ostensibly studying night herons and a mysterious object hidden in the woods. The plot has drastic consequences for the island, and in order to save both Nantucket and her king, Dido has to take on the conspiracy nearly single-handedly.

Dido comes into her own in this book; she is much less of a brat than she was in Black Hearts in Battersea. As she emerges from a secondary role to main character status, she demonstrates a shrewdness and intuition at which Aiken only hinted in the previous novel. She plays off the other characters beautifully, adding to their characterizations through sheer contrast. The plot is exciting and well paced, and Aiken stays one step ahead of the reader most of the time.

While Nightbirds on Nantucket stands alone well, don't miss out on the other books in the series. These are timeless modern classics, as fresh and appealing as they were when first published nearly forty years ago.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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