Patricia Elliott,
(Hodder, 2004;
Little, Brown & Co., 2006)

Fifteen-year-old village girl Agnes Cotter little guesses what awaits her within the gates of Murkmere, the decaying manor to which she has been summoned to work. Her initial excitement at an opportunity to escape a life of dull drudgery in the village gives way to uncertainty and terror as she becomes entangled in the lives of the people there -- and the many dangerous secrets they keep. Aggie's charge, Leah, is a strange and volatile girl who is obsessed with the swans on the overgrown mere. Her guardian and the Master of Murkmere, a cripple who binds his arms in iron because he once tried to strangle the most important man in the country, is stranger yet. More approachable, and more dangerous, is the enigmatic steward, Silas Seed, who holds a peculiar influence over the Master. No one is exactly what he seems, and everyone is at least a potential spy for someone else.

There is definitely something rotten in the state of Murkmere. Patricia Elliott has created a fantasy world gone wrong; if magic still exists, it does so just out of sight, beyond the grasp of a harsh reality of censorship, entrapment and blind superstition. Raised in a religion centered around the worship of birds, Aggie believes that the worst sinners of all are the avia, who, Icarus-like, desired to fly and were punished for their presumption by being made into shape-changers, neither wholly bird nor human. The blasphemous remarks that Leah makes, combined with her fascination with the swans and certain rumors about her mother's true identity, causes Aggie to fear for her soul. In the months preceding the ball for Leah's 16th birthday, Aggie is increasingly torn between wanting to follow the doctrines she was raised with and yearning for the freedom of thought espoused by Leah and her guardian. But her own doubts and uncertain allegiances are only part of other, larger problems: at Murkmere, danger comes in unpredictable forms -- from a bundle of wet swan feathers to a treacherous maidservant, to an elegant pistol held by a long-fingered white hand.

Set somewhere at the crossroads of "The Fall of the House of Usher," Jane Eyre and recent dark young adult fantasy like Franny Billingsley's The Folk Keeper, Patricia Elliott's Murkmere is in good company indeed. Elliott creates a memorably dark, gothic atmosphere that is unique in its inclusion of mythology, fairy tale and legend. Her world feels as if it has both history and depth, and she has a particularly good eye for setting a scene, whether the Gormenghast-like squalor of the kitchens or the gloomy dankness of the mere. The plot, driven by the revelation of interconnected secrets, steadily builds up to a cinematic climax that is impossible to put down.

Unfortunately, the characters don't quite live up to the atmospheric settings in which they are placed. Aggie, though realistic as an ignorant young village girl, is a rather naive and humorless narrator whose actions are motivated by equal parts of self-interest and misguided righteousness. Her affection for Leah is never quite convincing. The ambiguity of her role -- is she unwitting villain or virtuous heroine? -- is intriguing but unexplored, perhaps because Aggie is a bit too simple to dwell on such things. Leah and the Master of Murkmere are far more compelling characters, but they are held at a distance from the reader through Aggie's own inability to understand them. All this makes the resolution a little hard to swallow. In keeping with the tone of the rest of the story, however, Elliott wisely offers no traditional happy ending, suggesting only that continued life brings with it continued hope.

Despite the inapproachability of the main characters, Murkmere remains an absorbing, skillfully told almost-fantasy that should appeal to young adult readers who like their fiction dark and thoughtful. Fans of Meredith Ann Pierce and Garth Nix will enjoy Elliott's work and very probably clamor for more.

by Jennifer Mo
31 December 2005

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