A Magical Tale

The Twyning, by Terrence Blacker, (Candlewick Press), 432 pages, published 9/9/14

Generally speaking, I am not one for fantasy literature. I prefer books that transform this world over books that build new worlds. Terrence Blacker’s The Twyning does both with great success.

The Twyning is a young adult novel, but most definitely one of those with appeal beyond this age group. The novel is set in the late 1800s. Peter and Caz, the main human characters are in their early teens, living in a rubbish tip in a hollow Peter’s dug into one of the mounds of trash. Peter picks up odd jobs as he can, most regularly working with Bill, who catches rats for use in rat pits, and for a doctor engaged in an obsessive campaign against rats.

But Blacker gives readers a second world, set below the streets of the city where Peter and Caz live. There we meet Efren, a young rat. Of course, readers can see where this is headed: rats hunted for sporting, hygenic, or political ends; two children who are cogs in these mechanisms of destruction deciding whether to place their loyalties with a human world that has treated them harshly or with the Kingdom, the world of rats they’ve been taught to despise.

The Kingdom, the rat-world, is a marvelously detailed creation with complex rituals, a tense political structure, and a variety of courts—the Court of Governance, the Court of Punishment, the Court of Warriors, the Court of Historians. Efren is a very junior member of the Court of Tasters, rats trained to detect poison-laced food. The Kingdom also has a spiritual center: the Twyning, a group of rats congenitally connected who rely on the community for necessities and who function as a single entity. (And, yes, these really do exist.)

This book had me captivated from the moment I began reading. It’s narrated in two voices—Peter’s and Efren’s—and weaves the two stories together in another sort of twyning: a cross-species bonding full of distrust that becomes increasingly central to the survival of both Peter and Caz and of the Kingdom.

This book has violent moments. First off, there are the rat pits, where human “sportsmen” wager against each other, predicting which dogs will kill the most rats most efficiently. There are also two large-scale rat hunts. Normally, I can’t stomach books with violence toward animals, but in The Twyning, this violence is central to the story, and Blacker depicts it clearly, but never luridly.

In all, The Twyning is a remarkable tale that makes for compelling reading. The reader wants to spend time exploring the Kingdom, observing the ethos and actions that hold it together. The reader also longs for a happy ending for Peter and Caz. Once one starts reading, it is very, very hard to put this book down. Whether or not you’re a young adult, this is a book that will have you reading long past your usual bedtime.

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