Children of the Shaman by Jessica Rydill
Paperback - 400 pages (2 August, 2001) Orbit; ISBN: 1841490636
Review by John Berlyne

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There are some intriguing concepts at work in Jessica Rydill's debut novel, Children of the Shaman. The setting of a sort of parallel post-industrial revolution eastern Europe shows a high degree of originality and promise but other than this, here is a fantasy novel that suffers no shortage of familiar plot elements. This idea of a world "like ours but not ours" has certainly been seen many times before, but like Philip Pullman does in the His Dark Materials trilogy, Rydill gives us place that is familiar, yet exotically different and to give her due credit, this is the best thing about her novel.

Within this framework, Rydill tells a story of quests, of good versus evil and of the rites of passage of two young children. Annat and Malchik are taken to join their hitherto estranged father, Yuda, a shaman of no little power. Together they travel by train (trains are a central part of this story) to a remote town where Yuda is to take up the post of local doctor. There has been some trouble in the town though. Workers extending the railroad have been found murdered, others have disappeared and Yuda begins an investigation into these events which takes him and his children, along with two other companions on a journey to a magical land.

Rydill weaves some interesting things into all this. Of particular note is the notion of "The Wanderers" - a people to which our group of protagonists belong and who are clearly paralleling the Jews of eastern Europe, shunned and often feared by the largely "Doxoi" (Christian) population. Rydill imbues The Wanderers with much of the mysticism and folklore found in Judaism (a golem makes an appearance at one point) and it is from this that the magic contained in the book is derived. Though this derivation is clear, I found that Rydill's magic itself remained ill-defined. I can't help but feel that a people with such powers at their fingertips would not be so down-trodden. Yuda in some ways the embodiment of The Wandering Jew fable, but the parallel is again unclear and underplayed.

The central element of the train is also slightly fudged - in that a society that has such technology would surely show it in other ways. Yet in the world of this book, fights occur more with blows, swords and magical fire than with guns. An industrial boom would surely accompany the advent of the railroad, perhaps the telegraph would make an appearance, but here there are nothing more than the train tracks across a rural landscape. Furthermore, until the steam is up and the valves opened, a train has all the immediacy of a sleeping elephant in terms of being a suitable getaway vehicle, yet our characters somehow evade their pursuers who more than once are almost upon them when the train is at a standstill. Taken as a whole, the train just didn't quite work for me.

Later on in the novel, Rydill departs entirely from her Judeo/Christian premise and takes us somewhere else entirely. A dark lord archetype sits in a medieval castle and demands fealty from Yuda's son. A mythical landscape (within a mythical landscape) appears, inhabited by Gods and talking statues and sadly I felt that by this time it all rather lost it's coherency.

Children of the Shaman starts well enough, but like a runaway train, it slips away from us and leaves us on the platform. As a debut work it is not without promise, but Rydill will need to be more in control of her material in the future if she is to make her mark in the over crowed fantasy market.