Is Underground

Joan Aiken

Delacorte Press. $15.00
(paper $3.99)

At her dying uncle's request, Is Twite goes to London to find her cousin Arun who has run away from home. In London she learns that half the children of the city are missing -- even, it's rumored, the king's own son. Is soon hears whispers of a mysterious Playland Express which promises youngsters a land of carefree games and candy.

Things aren't so rosy at the other end of the midnight train ride, and the unsuspecting children find themselves whisked away to work for Gold Kingy in the mines and foundries of Blastburn. More wily than the rest, Is slips off. The town of Blastburn seems deserted (most people now live in New Blastburn underground) except for a few old souls willing to defy Gold Kingy -- including some newfound relatives: great-grandfather Twite and Great-Aunt Ishie. Less welcome is that greedy Gold Kingy, with all of Blastburn in his iron grip, is her uncle.

Is, who started out looking for just her cousin, now must rescue the hundreds of children from Gold Kingy's mines and foundries; and the best way to do that, it seems, is to work there herself.

Ever since The Wolves of Willoughby Chase in 1963, Joan Aiken has delighted readers young and old alike with her tales of an alternate England, and Is Underground is every bit as good as the others. Aiken's England is never idealized; her books, however, are a perfect distillation of what we hope to find in a period piece like this: humor, grit, a touch of fantasy, and hair-raising adventure.

Aiken's character's are distinctive and eminently likeable or despicable, as appropriate, and the dialogue is lively:

"I hardly know how best to break it to you. It is about Montrose..."

"A wolf got him? So early in the winter?"

"No, sir, worse than that, I fear."

Grandfather and Ishie hurried outside, she carrying a lamp. There on the path lay Montrose, or what had once been Montrose; now he looked like a flat two-dimensional drawing of a cat, done by some savage.

Aunt Ishie burst into tears.

"I never liked that cat!" she sobbed. "He was always bad-tempered and disagreeable. He bit me every time I fed him! But that someone should use him so!"

"That was done by a steam hammer," pronounced Grandpa Twite, closely inspecting his flattened pet. "Well -- at least he won't need a deep grave."

One charming touch worth particular mention is the tales Is and the others often tell each other. Little more than a few brief words here -- "...she told Aunt Ishie the stories about the harp of fishbones, and the crocodile who swallowed the dark, and the glass dragon, and the girl who talked to the dead king, and Aunt Ishie wrote them down in her neat, clear handwriting" -- many of them are fully developed short stories from Aiken's other collections. The four mentioned here can be found in her 1974 collection, Not What You Expected.


Other books about Is and her friends:

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Doubleday, 1963 (Simon)
Blackhearts in Battersea. Doubleday, 1964 (Simon and Dido)
Nightbirds in Nantucket. Doubleday, 1966 (Dido)
The Whispering Mountin, Doubleday, 1968 (Owen)
The Stolen Lake. Delacorte, 1981 (Dido)
The Cuckoo Tree. Doubleday, 1971 (Dido)
Dido and Pa. Delacorte Press, 1986 (Simon and Dido)
Is Underground. Delacorte Press, 1992 (Is)
Cold Shoulder Road. Delacorte Press, 1996 (Is)
Dangerous Games. Delacorte Press, 1999 (Dido)

The short stories:

"The Harp of Fishbones" from Not What You Expected. Doubleday, 1974
the glass dragon with three heads - "The Lost Five Minutes" from Not What You Expected
the man with three wishes who married a swan - "The Third Wish" from Not What You Expected
"The Queen with Screaming Hair" from The Last Slice of Rainbow. Harper & Row, 1985
the mystery of the rocking donkey - ?
"A Leg Full of Rubies" from Not What You Expected
the crocodile who swallowed the dark - "The Cost of Night" from Not What You Expected
the girl who talked to the dead king - "The Dark Streets of Kimball's Green" from Not What You Expected
the mysterious barricades - ?


This review copyright 1997 by Wendy Morris
Information last updated February 21, 1999

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