THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES by Holly Black
Although the book in The Spiderwick Chronicles were originally published separately (five in all), I knew it was only a matter of time before a box set was released, and so held off purchasing the separate installments so that I could invest in the complete set. I’m glad I waited, as one of the best things about this series is its beautiful presentation (the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” has little meaning here), and this nifty box set protects and displays them to best effect. Between the attractive coverings, Tony DiTerlizzi stunning ink illustrations and even the box itself, The Spiderwick Chronicles are books that will inhabit a place of pride on any bookshelf. They really are that pretty.
But of course, the story itself must always be of paramount importance, and Holly Black has managed to craft a fast-paced, intriguing and sometimes unsettling narrative centered on the realm of Faerie. After their parents’ divorce, the Grace children — Mallory, and the twins Jared and Simon — move with their mother into her great-aunt’s old house, the Spiderwick Estate. It soon becomes apparent that odd things are at work in the house and grounds, and after Jared discovers an old manuscript titled Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You (see above), he discovers a whole new world of brownies, elves, goblins, sprites and other faerie creatures right under his nose. Having previously published Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale, Valiant: A Modern Tale of Faerie and Ironside: A Modern Faery’s Tale, Holly Black joins the ranks of Terri Windling, Brian Froud, Neil Gaiman, Susanna Clarke, Patricia McKillip and so on as an author who rejects the idea of pretty, sweet, darling little fairies — the harmless types that came to popularity in the Victorian Era and are still apparent today in drivel such as Barbie Fairytopia. Your kids deserve better than that! This modern understanding of “fairy” has lost all potency, and thankfully, Black returns to the original folktales and legends and portrays her faerie creatures as dangerous, untrustworthy, suspicious beings — though ones still capable of great beauty, mystery and (sometimes) kindness.
Black presents the book as a real account of the Grace children’s experience with the faeries, including letters, maps and other documented evidence from the children (yes, she’s obviously been influenced by A Series of Unfortunate Events), which helps bring a fun sense of authenticity to the proceedings. Furthermore, Black draws upon real folklore and faerie lore within the context of the story — such as wearing clothes inside out, placating a house-brownie, the value of a hollowed stone, the dangers of faerie food, and other little touches that resonance with accuracy. In this, DiTerlizzi accompanies Black’s portrayal magnificently, and there’s really no limit to how much I could rave about his quirky, intricate, beautiful illustrations. From the smirks and grins of the kids themselves, to the architectural muddle of the Spiderwick Estate, to the way in which the contemporary world is effortlessly integrated with the world of the faeries, DiTerlizzi never fails to match the text perfectly.
The Field Guide opens the series just a tad slowly, with the Grace children somewhat disheartened at the decrepit state of their new home. However, Jared starts to warm up to the place after discovering a secret library belonging to his great-great uncle Arthur Spiderwick, and a strange field guide that describes a myriad of faerie creatures living in the vicinity. Perhaps the guide can shed light on the odd occurrences going on in the household…
After meeting Thimbletack, the house-brownie, Jared is shown The Seeing Stone, a hollowed stone that allows him to witness the rest of the inhabitants of the faerie world. It comes in handy when Simon goes missing, dragged away by goblins demanding the field guide for some as yet unknown purpose. Along with Mallory and her rapier (she’s a fencer), the siblings take to the woods to rescue their brother.
Lucinda’s Secret refers to their great-aunt Lucinda (daughter of Arthur Spiderwick), who the siblings hope can shed some light on the strange situation they find themselves in. She reveals some pertinent details of the household, and soon the siblings finds themselves on a trek to an elf-inhabited glade in search of more answers – and hears the name “Mulgarath” for the first time.
By the time The Ironwood Tree rolls around, the Grace children are fully immersed in the faerie world. After a shapeshifter causes trouble for Jared at school and Mallory goes missing, the twins search the quarry for their elder sister. There they find the dwarf population forging weapons for the ogre Mulgarath — and demanding the field guide in exchange for Mallory.
Finally The Wrath of Mulgarath deals with the Grace children’s final confrontation with the malevolent ogre, as they and all their faerie allies take on this dangerous, powerful shapeshifter and his dragons. As a finale, it’s a little anti-climatic, and Black doesn’t make good on many of the plot components that she had set up in past books, but it is a reasonable wrap-up to the series.
One of the interesting things about purchasing all five books simultaneously is that you can read them all in one sitting, (the reasonably short length of the books make this possible) with all the pros and cons that come with such a reading experience. By originally publishing the books one at a time, the level of anticipation naturally rises, with each episode adding a little more to the steadily growing mystery-adventure. This is lost when reading the each book immediately after the other, and admittedly some problems arise. I never noticed on my first read that Holly Black relies heavily on the plot device of kidnapping — a family member is kidnapped in nearly all the books: Simon is snatched by goblins in The Seeing Stone, Jared is temporarily held against his will in Lucinda’s Secret, Mallory is kidnapped by the dwarfs in The Ironwood Tree and Helen Grace is held hostage in The Wrath of Mulgarath. It’s hardly noticeable when reading the books in monthly doses, but all together it becomes glaringly obvious.
On the other end of the scale, it is easier to appreciate the little foreshadowing clues that Black litters throughout the story, particularly in the first two books. And of course, it’s nice not having to wait so long for the next book! The Spiderwick Chronicles are a great little set of books, with a new series now starting with The Nixie’s Song, and I for one am looking forward to it.