Monica Furlong,
(Random House, 2004)

Before the days of Harry Potter and other blockbuster fantasies, there were two rather remarkable young-adult fantasy books by Monica Furlong: Wise Child and its prequel Juniper. These were quiet books centered around strong, wise women, a touch of white magic and the beauty of daily life in long-ago Cornwall and Scotland.

Written a decade later, at the end of Monica Furlong's life, Colman picks up where Wise Child left off.

It tries, anyway. Persecuted for witchcraft, Juniper and Wise Child have returned to Juniper's native Cornwall, a state in which there's more than a little something rotten. The palace from which Juniper's parents ruled has been destroyed, and her countrymen live in fear and hunger. The rightful king, Juniper's younger brother, has been kidnapped and reduced to a puppet by their evil Aunt Meroot. Naturally it's up to our small band of heroes, or rather heroines, to undertake a perilous rescue mission to restore order to Cornwall.

Alas, much of what made the first two books memorable -- the details of spinning and herblore, the relationship between girl and teacher, the understated magic within women's wisdom -- has been replaced by a straightforward plot and uninspired action sequences. Magic is reduced to a plot device, and rather than relying upon their wisdom and good sense, characters have a tendency to instinctively sense the right thing to do. The reappearance of old, once-vanquished enemies is almost comically reminiscent of unplanned Hollywood sequels.

There's a curiously wooden quality about everything and everyone in Colman. Juniper and Wise Child are caricatures of their former selves, Wise Child's friend and the book's narrator Colman is a cipher, and neither individual characters nor their relationships with each other progress much in the course of the book. If you want to learn what happened after Juniper was reunited with her old love Finbar -- well, prepare to be disappointed.

Colman reads like a rough draft of a story that, with a good editor, sufficient time and serious revision, could have been a worthy end to Juniper and Wise Child's stories. Death, as it often does, got in the way. It's a shame that Monica Furlong's final book isn't a fitting testament to her achievements as a writer and as one of those wise, strong women she wrote about. Don't read Colman: go and reread Juniper instead.

review by
Jennifer Mo

10 May 2008

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