On the days that bring grey skies, traffic jams, tax returns and flu, I look for magic. And my first port of call, almost always, is Jackie Morris – an illustrator and author whose art and words transport me to other worlds in seconds. Last year I read about her snow leopard, before that her ice bear and a few years ago her dragons. Now Jackie Morris is back with Wild Swans, her take on an original fairytale by Hans Christian Anderson – and its every bit as magical, if not more, than what has gone before.
‘Eliza lived in a castle beside a forest…’ At first there is only happiness: a childhood blessed with loving parents and eleven brothers, handsome and brave. But when the queen, their mother, dies, a terrible change comes to the castle and to Eliza. Enchantment deep in the forest leads the king to marry the mysterious woman in white. Who knows why he conceals his children from her, in a tall tower, within a complex maze… But when the new queen discovers them, she takes bitter revenge, and eleven boys become eleven swans, who must fly far, far away from their sister. Eliza will need love, faith and courage to find her brothers, and this is only the beginning of her quest to break the white queen’s spell.
Even before the story starts, Morris brings the magic: a double page spread of an enchanted castle, the sea, a restless sky and a girl soaring across it on the back of a swan. It effortlessly draws the reader into the story – a sort of promise that what you are able to read is special and otherworldly.
Morris’ knowledge of, and delight in, the outdoor world – of nightingales, firecrests, goldcrests, curlews, silver sand eels – is a joy to read and each setting Eliza travels to to find her brothers is beautifully and convincingly evoked. The characterisation, too, is superb: a mysterious woman with ‘long white hair that glowed like the moon…a constant moving crown of moths’, a faery queen who lives in a castle carved from the clouds, a loyal sister who will stop at nothing to find her brothers and a vile bishop who seeks to undo any seeds of goodness sewn.
At the heart of the book there is an unsettling darkness, true to many of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytales and Morris encapsulates this evil in a brilliantly compelling way. The embittered white queen throwing ‘soft cloths of the finest spiders’ webs, each warped with a spell and wefted with jealousy’ over innocent boys is spine-tinglingly horrid and as she curses Eliza with witch-knots, Moontrug’s shoulders hunched up in fear.
Wild Swans is a story of winged magic, of twilights ‘filled with the soft wings of moths’, swan feathers ‘jewelled with tiny drops of water’ scattered on abandoned shores and flights over seas that shift from ‘pearl to slate, silver-splintered, fish belly fright, dove grey…cloud-shadowed’. But it is also a book about the ‘textures of silence’ – a sister’s quiet deeds, a dog’s faithful companionship and the mysterious watching of a hare. In the run up to Christmas, we live our lives at breakneck speed, but Morris reminds us that is it in the silence of everyday life that some of the greatest magic is found. So, amidst the rush of Christmas shopping and frantic holiday plans, listen to the wind catching in the heavy-leaved branches, the distant birdsong and the quietness of footsteps and heartbeats. Wild Swans is another magnificent read by Jackie Morris and Moontrug hugely recommends it.