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It must be thirty years ago that I first read my sister's copy of Annabel and Bryony, and I was utterly enchanted by it. So much so that whenever I went into a second hand bookshop (and I do that quite frequently) I searched for a copy for myself. After more than twenty years of my hopeless searching, consoled by the occasional re-read of that original, seven years ago my sister presented me with a battered, wonderful old copy that she had found for me. In the intervening years I have grown older, and it has grown more dated. I am not so utterly enchanted, but I do remain captivated, partly by the remembrance of my original feelings, but also by the contents read through adult but sympathetic eyes.
On the surface this is a relatively conventional story of four children -- Nick, Virginia, Dick, and the youngest Annabel, and their adventures in fairyland. (The marvellous illustrations by Pauline Baynes add a faint flavour of an escapee from Narnia, too.) But it has a charm and an inventiveness all of its own. One Christmas Day the four children discover a young fairy, lost, who cannot find her own way home. So they set out to help her, but immediately discover the journey is fraught with peril, as they are captured by the enemy winter Frost Fairies. The first half of the book is their escape and travel back to fairyland, and the second is with their adventures in fairyland itself.
What makes this different from most such stories, though, is the way that the soldier fairies treat the children as adult soldiers from the start, because of their size (which denotes wisdom in fairyland), and the way the children, for the most part, rise to this. It is underneath a morality tale about responsibility, respect and maturity, but told with a delicate touch. (A modern take would probably try to add some gritty realism, which would totally destroy the effect.) The fairy society, with the antics of the Ensigns, the more senior Lieutenants, and the mature Captains, all gorgeously decked out according to the various flowers they represent, is fascinating.
And the best part is, as the story closes satisfactorily with the children going home again, the ending of "Till the summer!" promises a sequel.
(Does this hold the record for the longest gap between publication of a novel and its sequel -- 48 years?) Annabel and Bryony was simply delightful -- could the long-awaited sequel stand up to the expectation? In a word, yes.
It is now the Summer, and the four children -- Nick, Virginia, Dick, and Annabel -- make their promised return to fairyland. Annabel soon discovers that her beloved Bryony has a new pupil -- the newly elected heir, Princess Tawny. Captain Annabel rapidly makes friends with the lonely Ensign princess. Bryony, meanwhile, is to be sent off on an important mission to rescue two missing fairyland soldiers. Annabel is determined to accompany him, despite his explicit refusal to let her, and she persuades Tawny to go along, too. But what Annabel doesn't realise is that this act constitutes High Treason! When she and Tawny are discovered, they do get to accompany Bryony on his dangerous mission, but under arrest and with Annabel stripped of her fairyland army rank. Their adventures in strange new lands are merely a prelude to the trial that must follow when they return.
I think this is actually even better than A&B. Of course, I didn't read it as a youngster originally, so it doesn't have the same marvellous resonances that A&B still has for me, except by association. But I was captivated enough to read it in a single sitting. It has a more complex plot, and more depth, yet manages to retain much of the charm of the original setting. The strong moral message is still there, but still with a lightness of touch.
A&T is perfectly self-contained: the first chapter recaps enough of A&B to set the context, and it has a satisfactory ending. But again, a sequel is clearly possible. So now, rather than being satisfied that my thirty year wait is finally ended, I am hungry for yet more. Knowing there are still two more to come is torment. Come on, Curved Air Press, let's have the rest!
At last! The long awaited second in the even longer awaited sequel trilogy has arrived.
(Mild) spoiler warning for A&T...
It is the day after Annabel's trial, and acquittal, for High Treason. She is determined to Be Good from now on, but, of course, things don't turn out that way, fortunately for literature. On a tour of The Wall, she is shown the impenetrable barrier between fairyland and the outside. Impenetrable to everyone except humans, that is. She stumbles and falls through, tumbling miles down the wall. Commander Curlie and two Ensigns dash after her through the rapidly closing gap, and save her from injury when she lands. But they are now lost in a strange land beyond the wall, a land with severely reduced magic. They must move off to survive, but secure in the knowledge the High Command will be putting forth all efforts to rescue them. They discover the terrible secret of the land they are in, and the end result, due to Annabel's impulsive offer of aid, is that she has started a war! What is the Queen going to think about that?
This is another joy to read. The tale isn't quite as complex as A&T, as the party move through friendly and hostile territory, and battle evil. (In fact, I kept expecting there to be a twist, and the apparently good turn out to be hidden evil, but that's because we live in older and more cynical times, now.) There are lovely little touches, such as the bugler's tunes. The moral tale of courage, responsibility and respect is still clearly present, but still woven into the tale in a lighthanded way. One can even read a strong environmental message in here!
Thank you to Marjorie Phillips' estate for editing the manuscript, and to Curved Air Press for publishing this. And there's still one more to go...
And finally, here is the conclusion to the "lost" trilogy.
Captain Annabel is still getting into scrapes: getting lost in the Queen's private grotto, practising forbidden magic (well, actually, simply writing poetry, but the fairies can't tell the difference). Worst of all, she has captured the interest of the Great Ones in the Blue Hills, and they have Summoned her for a meeting. How will she cope with the ordeal? Actually, knowing Annabel, how will the Great Ones cope?
The first half of the book is Annabel back in Fairyland, getting into her usual scrapes, yet also showing her tremendous courage that so inspires the fairy companions. The second part moves to the Blue Hills, where the tone changes somewhat. Here the underlying light-touch morality message moves away from moral courage to physical courage, since the Blue Hills don't have the same protections in Fairly land, and Annabel's "scrapes" are literal: bloodily grazed knees. Everyone is amazed and impressed by her refusal to take any notice of them, and so she triumphs there as well.
This didn't work quite as well for me (as an adult reader) as the previous volumes, for one simple reason. In the Blue Hills, Annabel is essentially a child again, playing games (such glorious games!) with other children. And that's not as interesting as the intricate ethics and morals of the fairy world. Despite that one point, this is a good conclusion, filling in some detail one the mysterious Great Ones, and with some good "loneliness of command" scenes back with the Queen of the fairies. All in all, this trilogy has been worth the wait.
If it hadn't been for the power of the Internet, discovering a large enough (if still rather select!) market for these books, they may well never have seen the light of day. One up for technology, and congratulations and thanks to Marjorie Phillips' family for rescuing and editing them, and Curved Air Press for publishing them.