I gave this book’s predecessors rather lukewarm reviews, finding them a little too simplistic and reliant on the success of Harry Potter, with rather weak villains and too many periphery characters to keep track of. However, all that changes with the third installment in the series, which has a sophisticated plot with an intriguing resolution, a truly unnerving villain and a very real sense of danger and suspense. The protagonists of the series are Septimus and Jenna Heap, the former the Apprentice to the ExtraOrdinary Wizard and youngest son of the Heap family, the latter a long-lost princess raised by the Heaps who has recently found her heritage as future-ruler of the land. Together, they make a good team and are friendly, likeable and intelligent characters in their own right.
An ongoing joke of the series is the trouble that Heap family cause, and so it’s only natural that their patriarch — Silas Heap — is the source of the problems that arise in this book, after inadvertently freeing the ghost of a five hundred year old Queen. Queen Etheldredda is as terrible as she ever was, and has a plan to reclaim her throne — one which involves the removal of Septimus, the death of Jenna and the talents of her mysterious son Marcellus Pye, a famous physician who holds the key to her hopes of immortality. As strict and severe as the worst storybook governess and ultimately quite as evil as any fairytale stepmother, Queen Etheldredda tricks Jenna and Septimus into looking into a strange dark looking-glass, one that hurtles Septimus back to the time of her living reign.
Also thrown into the mix is a Northern Trader named Snorri Snorrelson, a young woman with an ordinary-looking orange cat that does something rather extraordinary every night, and Marcellus Pye himself, a fascinating character who is not quite a good guy, and yet not quite a bad guy either. Other familiar characters such as the rest of the Heap family, Aunt Zelda, Marcia Overstrand, Alther Mella and the dragon Spit Fyre turn up as well, all of whom play reasonably important parts in the story. Furthermore, for the first time her invented fantasy world feels like a real place, historically, geographically and socially, what with the introduction of other cultures, other times and new locations.
Any book that deals with time-traveling usually gets confusing, but Sage handles the situation well, and in several interesting ways. Septimus, for example, is stuck in the past for quite a while, and as such goes through several drastic changes in his persona and appearance. It’s nice when characters in a series change and grow over time. Likewise, there are several funny quirks throughout the story — such as letters written in the past that turn up in the present, diary entries that shed light on the location of certain people, and the origins of a few urban legends that the protagonists themselves create. It’s all as mind-bending as any time-traveling story is, but handled with consistency by Sage. And even when the characters (well, some of them anyway) make it back to the present, there are a few surprises left…
At times, the story does tend to go off-track, such as the needless presence of a crazed mob of Rat-Stranglers and several characters serving little purpose in the flow of the story (such as Lucy Gringe and Wolf-Boy, who seem to be present simply so Sage can set up their roles for the fourth book). Silas and Sarah Heap still show a surprising lack of concern for the welfare of their children (perhaps Sarah can be excused as she is elsewhere at the time of their disappearance, but when Silas sits down to play a board game with his friend whilst his youngest children are potentially in mortal danger… well, you have to wonder if maybe there’s something wrong with him). Even odder is the complete lack of Jenna’s biological father, introduced in the second book, but only mentioned briefly here. You’d think their long separation and new reunion would have been a matter of more importance to the both of them.
However, perhaps these are issues that will be dealt with in the next book, as there are plenty of loose plot threads to sustain another book, particularly when reading Sage’s trademark ending, in which she divulges background information on some of her characters in a chapter called “Things You Might Like to Know About.”