The Steps up the Chimney is the first in four books that accumulate into The Magician’s House Quartet, revolving around three children who come to stay at their uncle’s strange house, and Stephen Tyler, a time-traveling wizard who befriends the children on their stay at Golden Valley.
In The Steps Up The Chimney, the children arrive at the house after already experiencing some strange events — Will has meet a stranger at Druce Coven station who mysteriously disappeared and a fox seems to popping up everywhere they look. Within the house and grounds however, things become even more strange — Alice finds footprints in the snow that end abruptly in the middle of a clearing and Mary notices an extra window in the house that shouldn’t be there. By researching the house’s near-ancient origins and searching high and low, the children eventually come across an amazing discovery — that there are steps up the chimney…
These books are highly original — there was little in these books that I had run across before in other novels. Among other things the books include time traveling, alchemy, animals that can communicate with the children and the more mundane occurrences of the children’s relationship with their uncle and his pregnant girlfriend Phoebe. Although the entire story is set within the valley, the story draws on larger themes that are not only world-wide, but stretch throughout Tyler’s time to the present day, the main one being the nature of greed and its evils.
William Corlett shows a good knowledge and interest in English history, and is always adding in tidbits of information when describing the building or architecture of the house or grounds, which he no doubt planned and mapped in great detail.
Characterisation is, on the whole, very good whether it be the somewhat dithery vegetarian Phoebe, the talkative historian Mrs Prewett or the wide variety of animals that roam the ground such as the fox Cinnabar, the owl Jasper or the dog Sirius (or as Alice calls him — Spot). The wizard however, far from being a main character flits in and out of the story very briefly – his role is firmly restrictive to that of teacher, and a distant teacher at that — there is no real warmth in the relationship between him and the children.
Although the title of the book is captivating, many times the story itself falls slightly short of my expectations — often the narrative falls into meaningless history lessons or long-winded descriptions of the nature of alchemy, and much of the story structure relies on the reader having a good visual picture of the house and its features within their head. A map of the house and grounds can be found in each book, but a good idea would have been to include illustrations of many of the diagrams Corlett describes within the book and a family tree to keep track of all the Crawdens, Lewises, Mordens and Tylers that are so often mentioned throughout all four books.
Likewise, I could find very little to like with Corlett’s protagonists William, Mary and Alice. If Corlett set out to make them — especially Alice — irritable, annoying, whiny, bickersome children, then he succeeded. If he wanted them to be enjoyable, realistic characters than he failed. To illustrate my point, read the passage where the children are getting into Jack’s car for the first ride back to Golden House — it spans only two pages but within it Alice and Will fight over the front seat, Will sits on Alice and Alice moans about not getting her way; Alice says to Mary: ‘Oh Mary, the last thing we want is one of your history lessons. They’re so boring.’ and Mary says: ‘They’re always squabbling. And that’s really boring.’ Once inside the car Mary talks with Jack about the length of her hair and Alice says: ‘Ugh! Stop flirting, Mary. Be careful, Uncle Jack. She’s man-mad!’
Mary: Honestly, you’re such a baby, Alice.
Alice: You’re blushing! Mary’s blushing!
Mary: Shut up Alice!
See what I mean? If I was Uncle Jack I would have stopped the car and left the little brats to camp out on the train tracks. How we are supposed to find the three of them sympathetic, much less likeable characters I have no idea, and they get even worse as the story progresses.
These thoroughly horrible children aside, the books are thoughtful and original — though not the best of their genre, any fantasy reader should be interested enough by this opening novel to continue the story in the next book: The Door in the Tree.
The Magician’s House Quartet — (1990-1992) Ages 9-12. Publisher: Thirteen-year-old William Constant and his two younger sisters, Mary and Alice, have come to ancient, mysterious Golden House in Wales for the holidays. Their lives will never be the same once they enter the Magician’s House — and discover their destiny. What evil lurks in Golden House? The children know… William knew something was wrong from the moment they arrived at the railroad station on the border of Wales. First came the stranger who said his name was Steven. “Remember me,” he said. Then he vanished. By the time they reached Golden House, even Mary and Alice felt something odd. Who — or what — are the strange animals… a fox, a dog, an owl… that seem to be able to read their minds? Why is it that sometimes the children even see out of the eyes of the animals and hear with their ears? And what is that prickling sensation pulling them toward the secret steps up the chimney? Nothing can stop them as they are drawn deep into the old house, into the realm of the Magician.