Heriot, By Margaret Mahy

A young wizard grows up
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Justly described as the queen of children's fiction, Margaret Mahy – now 73 – is still the most arresting guide to the upside-down world awaiting any child starting their journey towards becoming a teenager.

Rather than describing this process realistically, she uses fantasy to get across what adolescence is really about, transcending the limitations of the here and now into something timeless and without national boundaries.

Her young characters sometimes experience the changes occurring within them by growing to recognise aspects of their former selves as ghosts, or in dreams. Looking into mirrors, they do not always see the same face gazing back. Forces threatening them are taken on by their own, newly adult, powers.

Previous novels have gradually introduced a parallel imaginary universe. But Heriot is set from the first in the fantasy town of Diamond, a place of magicians, corrupt knights and troubled kings, threatened by armies outside and enemies within. With so much to get used to in this unfamiliar environment, there is some risk of congestion in the opening chapters.

But as Heriot, the young wizard, learns how to survive his adversaries, the narrative steadies before extending into a memorable climax. He has to risk becoming something of a monster himself in order to defeat the monstrous evil around him. He also has to convince others that fighting for peace is a nobler venture than returning to the brutal conquests of old.

Most crucially, he must resolve the split sides of his personality, represented by two different characters, bringing them into one whole. This he does, not least through the agency of Cayley, the junior street fighter rescued by him who later on most gratifyingly reveals herself as an attractive girl. Their growing love affair and its sweet consummation should surely please readers of all ages. But it is still a hard-won fulfillment, with betrayal, imprisonment and threats of worse cruelties before Heriot and Cayley are allowed to claim their maturity and start their new life.