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The Hidden World
Alison Baird
Puffin Books, 335 pages

Brian Deines
The Hidden World
Alison Baird
Alison Baird's first novel, The Dragon's Egg, was a regional winner of the Ontario Library Association Silver Birch Award. Her second children's novel, White as the Waves, was a retelling of Herman Melville's Moby Dick from the whale's point of view. Her stories have also appeared in On Spec: The Canadian Magazine of Speculative Writing. Alison's grandparents lived in China for a time and her father was born there in Honan Province. Alison Baird lives in Oakville, Ontario, and always has a writing project on the go.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Georges T. Dodds

Maeve O'Connor is 15, wants to be an actress, is not particularly pretty, and is a perennial outsider at her school near Toronto. To make matters worse her father has just lost his job, her rebellious older brother is driving her parents apart, and to top it all off they have sent her off to rural Newfoundland to spend the summer with her aunt and uncle. Through a talisman she discovers in a bureau -- and her own fey nature -- she begins shifting back and forth between Newfoundland and a parallel universe of Celtic myth, Annwn, which her grandmother had described in a children's novel. She is befriended by Thomas, an Annwn-born boy of her age and his community, but terror soon grips the land as the evil sea-dwelling Fomori, bent on subjugating Annwn drive forth Thomas' people from their homes. When things are looking bleakest for her friends, she and Thomas mount a bold bid to enlist the aid of the fairy folk.

When I read the synopsis of The Hidden World I initially assumed/hoped it to be something in the vein of the John Sayles film The Secret of Roan Inish (1994, based on 1957 novella The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry by Rosalie K. Fry) transposed to Newfoundland, with perhaps a bit more of a fantasy element. Worried that my disappointment with The Hidden World might be largely biased by my expectations I took a week and a half off before writing the review. It only helped to confirm my opinion. While it may be unfair to compare prose to film, particularly a film that I find so full of wonder and beauty, The Secret of Roan Inish makes an excellent counterpart to the two main flaws I see in The Hidden World.

While the film introduces the legends/mythology surrounding the Coneelly family and their departure from the island of Roan Inish fluidly as little bits of information that the young Fiona Coneelly gleans from different familial sources and must synthesize herself, in The Hidden World Maeve O'Connor receives similar information in little didactic packets -- almost every time a new term or concept is presented it is defined in detail, often interrupting the flow of the narrative. This didactic approach extends to a pronunciation guide which precedes the novel, something perhaps better suited to an appendix.

In terms of mythology, the film limits itself to the Irish lore of selkies and a baby in a floating cradle, making the mythology involved fairly transparent to even one not versed in Irish mythology. In The Hidden World, however, no less than 5 mythologies/ethnologies are involved: Native American (Beothuks); King Arthur/Holy Grail; Plato's Atlantis; Irish fairy lore; and Welsh, Mabinogion-based lore. Besides the fact that this proliferation of mythologies serves to multiply the didactic passages, the author simply doesn't have the room to do each one justice.

Beyond this, I was never really able to identify with Maeve, perhaps to some extent because she was largely a person to whom things happened but who had very little influence on people or on events she witnessed, until the last 3 of 18 chapters. Because of her passive role and the third person (rather than fist person) narration, while I had a general sense of her emotional state, any nuances were not immediately obvious. Her passive role also largely eliminated any sort of quest or fated destiny scenario and left it in doubt why she and Thomas decided on the particular course of action they did, rather than several other potential options open to them.

This isn't to say that the description of the parallel world of Annwn isn't well done and that there isn't plenty of adventure in the last two-thirds of the book. The writing is evocative and no effort to read. There's even a somewhat sad ending, something refreshing in a children's fantasy. Notwithstanding my criticisms above, The Hidden World would still probably please most young readers. However, if I were looking for this sort of tale for my kids, I might hunt down C.S. Lewis' Narnia novels or Joy Chant's Red Moon and Black Mountain before investing my time in finding Alison Baird's The Hidden World

Copyright © 2000 Georges T. Dodds

Georges Dodds is a research scientist in vegetable crop physiology, who for close to 25 years has read and collected close to 2000 titles of predominantly pre-1950 science-fiction and fantasy, both in English and French. He writes columns on early imaginative literature for WARP, the newsletter/fanzine of the Montreal Science Fiction and Fantasy Association.

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