Maddigan’s Fantasia by Margaret Mahy
Early in the 22nd century, the world underwent a vast and radical change, in which the tectonic plates of the Earth shifted and a series of devastating earthquakes changed the face of the planet. As a result of these events — now known as the Great Chaos — the population has severely dropped and most technology has been lost. What remains is a dangerous wilderness where communities are isolated and bandits roam the unmapped highways.
Yet out of the ashes of the old world comes Solis, the shining city. It is here that the circus troupe known as Maddigan’s Fantasia spends each winter before heading out every year to explore new lands, collect lost knowledge and spread some colour and joy to those living in a post-apocalyptic world.
But this year things are different. Because Solis is powered by the sun, it is in desperate need of a new solar converter if the city is to remain the single bright beacon in a dark world. Though emissaries were sent out to retrieve one from the settlement of Newton, they never returned. The city council therefore turns to Maddigan’s Fantasia, setting them the task of retrieving the converter. Because the circus leaves the city every year, they’ll be beneath the suspicion of any spies or traitors that are plotting the destruction of Solis.
At the centre of this quest is fourteen year old Garland, the daughter of Ferdy Maddigan, the ringleader of the circus and last of the Maddigan family line. She knows the potential dangers that lie in wait for the Fantasia, all the more so for her recent visions of a silver girl that seems to want to warn her about something. Yet it’s a warning that comes too late when the circus is attacked and Ferdy is killed. There’s even more upheaval when two young boys and their baby sister appear out of nowhere to join the troupe, desperate to escape a couple of sinister men that follow them everywhere.
Through her grief, Garland soon discovers the astonishing truth: that the boys are from the future, one in which the Fantasia failed to return the solar converter to Solis. As a result, the city turned to radioactive power and fell under the control of a terrible being known as the Nennog. To avert this future they’ve been sent back in time by their parents in order to change the course of history and ensure the success of the Fantasia.
But while baby Jewel becomes the apple of everyone’s eye and younger brother Eden proves himself a blessing to the performers thanks to his magical powers, Timon conceals a dark secret that threatens the Fantasia, their mission, and the future of Solis.
Margaret Mahy is an exceptional writer, able to keep the pace flying whilst delving into her characters and world-building as expertly as any juggler in her imaginary circus. Her prose is like music on the page, with similes and turns of phrase that often made me put down the book and sigh in delight. Take for example our first description of the Fantasia:
Down at the bottom of the hill a little plain, slightly scooped like a begging hand, reached out of a small forest of old trees stretching towards the next hill. On the edge of scrubby bush that fringed the true forest, Garland’s moving home, the Fantasia, was laid out like a strange garden. Its tents were old and sometimes patched but they still had the look of gallant coloured flags. That one there was her sleeping place — half bus, half caravan — a crested tower pointing upwards from its root, rather as if a little castle were struggling to hatch itself out of the old van. The Fantasia was having a private joke with itself, dressing not only its clowns and acrobats in astonishing clothes, but turning the vehicles that carried it along the leftover tracks of the wild world into a bright and shifting village on wheels.
Lovely. Furthermore, Mahy’s imagination seems to know no bounds, and her imagery conjures up all sorts of wonders: a library in the middle of nowhere, tunnels and crypts that wind through a mountain, a town in which children have wrestled control from hapless adults, a tribe of boys with mechanical wings. Best of all is the Fantasia itself, for Mahy beautifully captures the joy that it spreads throughout a desolate world, the seize-the-moment mentality of its participants, and the intricate network of relationships that result in its cheerful, warm, squabbling dynamic.
Garland is our protagonist and narrator, a resourceful and determined heroine who is next in line to inherit the Fantasia. Yet despite her sense of responsibility, she’s not above getting territorial over the fact that fellow circus-performer Yves has eyes for her beautiful mother, and suspicious that he’s trying to usurp her father’s place as ringleader. An attraction between herself and Timon slowly builds throughout the story, given added poignancy by the fact that if their mission is successful, the two of them will be separated by almost one hundred years.
Maddigan’s Fantasia has a bit of everything: a post-apocalyptic setting, a quasi-steampunk atmosphere, a blend of fantasy and science-fiction, some time-travel and adventure, and plenty of great characters. Worth saying is that it completely disregards the “rules” of time-travel. There are loops and paradoxes and inconsistencies galore, in which characters change the past yet retain memories of the averted future, or come from the future in order to change aspects of the past that they’ve already experienced. It’s enough to leave you cross-eyed, so if you like your time-travel stories to remain consistent, then you may struggle with the liberties taken here.
Furthermore, if you feel that the story has a rather episodic quality to it, that’s because it was written with the intent purpose of being adapted into a television show for New Zealand television. Retitled Maddigan’s Quest, it’s a very faithful and enjoyable adaptation of Mahy’s original book, with plenty of kiwi talent and ingenuity. It’s worth tracking down.
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