The Magician Trilogy by Jenny Nimmo are some of the best children’s fantasy novels out there — and so inevitably they are virtually unknown. Set in the mountains of Wales, the books chronicle the experiences of Gwyn Griffith, a young boy magician dealing with the gift and burden of inheriting magical powers from his legendary ancestors. Before immediate comparisons are made with that other boy-wizard, rest assured that The Snow Spider was published several years before Harry Potter hit the scene.
In the The Snow Spider, Gwyn becomes aware of his abilities as a magician, using his gift to summon several magical artifacts from another world, including Arianwen, a tiny silver spider who helped him uncover the mystery of his sister Bethan’s disappearance several years before and save his best friend Alun from a malevolent force he mistakenly unleashed.
Surprisingly, Nimmo chooses to take a step away from Gwyn in the sequel (Emlyn’s Moon, also published as The Orchard of the Crescent Moon) and tell the story from the point of view of Nia Lloyd, the little sister of Gwyn’s best friend. She is the middle child in a very large family, and suffering from the belief that she’s no good at anything, as well as sadness at the fact that the Lloyds are leaving the beauty of their mountainside cottage for a butchery in the town. But once there, she befriends the mysterious Llewelyn family who live in a renovated chapel; Emlyn and his artistic father. Feeling her worth for the first time when amongst them, Nia ignores the warnings from her family that are used to begin the book:
“Don’t go into Llewelyn’s chapel!” they told Nia. ‘No good will come of it. Something happened there!’ But Nia disobeyed. If she hadn’t, nothing would have changed. She’s still be plain Nia, dull Nia, Nia who couldn’t do anything!”
From this meeting flows the rest of the novel; beautifully written to explore issues such as loneliness, self-worth, family and relationships, in a story filled with missing mothers, mysterious children and hidden orchards of icy-cold flowers. I can’t help but compare it favourably Harry Potter; whilst the world of magic is central to the Harry Potter series, magical workings are on the periphery here and so appears more mysterious and unknown. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Harry Potter books, but Nimmo’s subtle treatment of magic and her concentration on the more human elements of the novel is wonderful (and somewhat ironic considering her latest novels Children of the Red King are obviously inspired by the success of Harry Potter and not nearly as good as this previous trilogy).
The best thing about the trilogy is that although each one is a separate story, similar themes, storylines and character arcs are present throughout all three. Therefore, though the disappearance of Bethan was resolved in the first book, it is not completely forgotten here and her backstory and continuing influence plays a major part in Emlyn’s Moon. Likewise, the malevolent force that was halted in The Snow Spider will not finally be put to rest until the third book The Chestnut Soldier, though it does not impinge on the action here. The overriding theme throughout all books is one becoming increasingly rare in children’s fiction; that of the family unit and its power. Therefore, as Gwyn managed to heal his immediate family in the previous book, it is now up to Nia to mend the rift between Gwyn and his cousin’s families.
The family is not presented as a difficult, cruel environment, nor as an overly comfortable, too-good-to-be-true unit, but realistically, with all the messy, busy, bickering, stable familial bonds you’d expect in real life. Since the books were first published in the eighties, perhaps some of the language and family roles may feel a little dated, but no one can fault them for their realism and familiarity. The families aren’t perfect, but they are worth fighting for.
The Magician Trilogy can best be compared with Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander, both of whom instigated the use of Welsh legends as the basis for their books (The Dark is Rising sequence and The Chronicle of Prydain). The Magician Trilogy is sadly not as popular as either of these books, but they are well worth the effort of finding. Delicately written, and with touching illustrations by Joanna Carey, these books should be on every child’s bookshelf.