Review: The Thirty-Third Owl by Jane Burnard
Shape-shifting is at the heart of this rollicking adventure for young readers – shape-shifting being that mysterious ability that allows humans to become animals and then turn back again, which is such a staple of old Celtic tales such as the Mabinogion.
So the titular owl is only one member of a veritable menagerie of soaring eagles, starlings, magical moles and kestrels which animate the book’s various landscapes of underground lakes, mountain parapets and ancient cromlechs.
At its heart this is the story of Rose, a redoubtable young girl, very much missing her father, who sets out to stop developers building an abbatoir in her favourite wood. This is a place where she feels very much at home, not least because of her ability to turn into an owl and then transmogrify back again:
“Rose found herself transforming. She closed her eyes as the feathers drew in to become skin, clothed in trousers and fleece, the wings to become arms, the short, feathered legs and claws extending to become human legs and feet. She felt heavier now – and fuzzier. When she opened her eyes, the sharpness had gone from her vision, so that she strained to see clearly in the early-dawn darkness.”
At her side, through thick and thin, is her twelve-year-old friend Ianto, gifted with the ability to turn into a giant and along the way they’re aided by an old farmer, Ianto’s great-uncle Mr Williams and his trusty sheepdog, Del, trustily always at his side.
Williams has to foresight to bring a coracle with him – in so doing looking like a giant tortoise, much out of place – when they venture underground to discover a large lake and luckily they also have the necessary climbing equipment to scale cliffs and traverse precipices, as sometimes, magic simply isn’t enough.
And this, being set in the Wales of legend, features encounters with ferocious boars, snorting like the legendary Twrch Trwyth and face-offs with slavering wolves too, not to mention those industrious underground dwarves, the “knockers” who help the self-styled Four Musketeers whose story we follow as they go adventuring through labyrinthine caverns.
These mysterious dwarfish helpers, known to lead miners of olden times, remain invisible throughout, in contrast with even the blue ball-like flames of corpse candles which help mysteriously light the way through a labyrinth of tunnels where good and bad kings lurk, where fools’ gold matches that of gold in lustre and trials and travails beset our heroes at a breathless lick, keeping the book’s pages turning well into the night.
The same shape-shifting qualities on display in the story are present in the physical book itself, which interleaves within it a small section of a graphic novel – the author is also an artist – and continues the story at the end of the text with a couple of mock news stories. It’s the same level of inventiveness as that which animates The Thirty-Third Owl more generally.
This reviewer is half a century older than its target audience of twelve year old readers but it most certainly released the inner child, prompting easy, if perhaps dated comparisons with the Famous Five adventures of Enid Blyton, which fair captivated me as a kid.
Jane Burnard moved to Wales almost a decade ago and the tales of the country have clearly enthralled and captivated her, offering her a colourful template and series of inspirations for her own fictional conjurings. And thus this book.
Seldom told in anything lower than fifth gear, The Thirty-Third Owl is a bucking fairground ride of a novel, full of ups and downs, tribulations and trials, all requiring the reader to buckle up, settle down and enjoy what is nothing short of an action-packed ride.
Oh and before you lose any sleep over the matter, the developers don’t get to build that abbatoir because of a cromlech set in the heart of the wood, the discovery of which throws an almighty spanner in the works when it comes to obtaining planning permission. But that’s another story…
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