Thursday 25 October 2012
THE GHOST DRUM by Susan Price. Reviewed by Ann Turnbull
"In that country the snow falls deep and lies long, lies and freezes until bears can walk on its thick crust of ice. The ice glitters on the snow like white stars in a white sky! In the north of that country all the winter is one long night, and all that long night long, the sky-stars glisten in their darkness, and the snow-stars glitter in their whiteness, and between the two there hangs a shivering curtain of cold twilight."
In 1987 Susan Price won the Carnegie Award for The Ghost Drum. It seems inexplicable that this powerful, original fantasy was ever allowed to go out of print. Fortunately it is now available once again as a Kindle e-book, with a stylish new cover designed by Andrew Price.
The origins of this story lie in northern legends and folk tales, especially the folklore of Russia. There are witches and shamans, an evil Czar who rules over a population of peasant slaves, a prince locked in a tower and a young witch who sets out to rescue him.
In the peasants' house where Chingis, the witch-to-be, is born, it is so cold at night that the whole family must sleep huddled together, lying on blankets, on top of the big tiled stove. Far away is the padded, silent, jewelled world of the Czar's palace - a place of cruelty and fear, where Safa the Czarevich can never set foot beyond the round wall of the tower room where he was born. Years pass. Safa's spirit cries out for escape, and Chingis hears it:
"Stepping from her body, her spirit grasped the thread of the cry and flew on it, like a kite on a line, to the Imperial Palace, to the highest tower, to the enamelled dome."
In a passage of extreme tension Susan Price describes the progress of the witch as she makes her way, invisible, through the palace and up the stairs to the locked room where Safa is imprisoned.
There is no sentimentality here. Good characters are killed, evil ones triumph. But alongside the real world is the ghost world where powerful spirits await their chance to return to the world of the living.
The writing is beautiful and the pace perfect. This is a very visual book that leaves the reader with a wealth of images: the snowy landscape, the forests, the witch with her shaman's drum - and her house on chicken's legs that becomes restless when it senses danger, raking up the snow with its claws and banging its door. The story is compelling, and it's the detail that brings it to life.
The Ghost Drum would be enjoyed by children of about nine and over - and by adults. Books 2 and 3 in the series, Ghost Song and Ghost Dance, are also available as Kindle e-books.
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