Skaldenland by James Mortimore. Book review

SKALDENLAND by James Mortimore, Obverse Books, h/b, £10.99,

Reviewed by David Brzeski

This fascinating novel starts out as a classic children’s fantasy, somewhat reminiscent of Alan Garner in style. The book tells the story of two teenage siblings, Chad & Brun, who find a strange music box in a junk shop. The children are young & precocious, & seem intelligent beyond their years.

It’s rather difficult to pin down exactly when the story is set. There’s evidence to suggest the setting is late 80s. The childrens’ father owns a classic 85 Mazzerati, but no one in the book has a mobile phone, or a computer. The general feel, though, is more ’50s, or ’60s.

Brun is working on her novel, a retelling of Norse mythology, with which she has filled several school exercise books. Somehow the music box – the Symphonion – is taking her words & trying to rewrite reality in their image. Snow falls in summer, Pipes freeze, yet no one seems to react in an appropriate manner to such impossible phenomena.

Chad finds himself on a terrifying trip into nightmare, where he risks losing his very identity… or regaining it. He’s scared, angry. Doesn’t know who to trust… Ellyn, the potential girlfriend, a disturbed girl who burned down her father’s shop… Mrs. C., the eccentric old lady across the road, who knows more than she will tell, yet expects him to do as she says. Vincent, an older local lad who fancies Brun & gets on Chad’s nerves. Even his father, Roger & his stepmother, Hjelle Miyake become suspect as the Symphonion exerts it’s influence.

Dragonflies become keys, scarecrows move, giant warriors on horseback & wolves pursue him. Even the very landscape shifts & changes to keep him from escaping his fate. Reality is being changed, but which world is actually the real one? Who is Chad, who is Brun & who is the mysterious Ellyn??

It soon becomes obvious that this isn’t really a childrens’ book at all. It’s complex, frightening & very weird.

The again… maybe it’s a book intended for children in their 40s & 50s, in which case it certainly worked for me!