Eva Ibbotson is one of my favorite authors, and I’ve read most of her books, but the two books in this review, A Company of Swans and A Journey to the River Sea (books #136-137 for 2009) are unique, both set largely in the heart of the Amazon.
I’ve always been a fan of Ibbotson’s idyllic pastoral scenery and tree-hugging characters, and I was eager to find out how she would take on a more exotic environment such as the Amazon. I took A Company of Swans with me on the trip to Cebu, while Journey to the River Sea was one of the books that kept me company during my hospital stay (reading wasn’t easy, even after the fever passed, as my left hand got swollen after so many bottles of IV and they had to transfer the IV to my right).
Despite the exotic change of scenery, I was not disappointed with Ibbotson’s forays into the Amazon, as she manages to paint a magical setting that enhances her work’s trademark charm.
A Company of Swans is a novel about ballet, featuring nineteen year-old Harriet Morton, who lives with her fuddy-duddy father and overbearing Aunt Louisa in Cambridge. Life holds little excitement for Harriet, and the only light in her dreary existence is ballet class at Madame Lavarre’s.
One day, a Russian ballet master pays their class a visit, and presents Harriet with an offer to become of of the swans in his company for their South American tour.
Eager to test her wings, Harriet defies her family’s (and her betrothed’s) wishes and escapes to join the Ballet, which is set to perform in the grand opera house in the Amazon, owned by the charming and enigmatic Rom Verney, with whom Harriet falls in love.
Trouble brews when Harriet’s past catches up with the present, and threatens to take her away from her new paradise.
This is the fourth Eva Ibbotson historical romance I’ve read and I must say her formula really works for me. The story is simple, but with enough sigh-worthy conflict, and the characters are wonderfully old-fashioned but have a luminous quality to them that really makes the reader root for a happy ending.
The ballet theme was personally fascinating. While I’ve got two left feet that barely made it through our high school ballet class, I’ve always loved ballet and have great admiration for ballet dancers. I liked the energy of the ballerinas in the book, and the lavish descriptions of the steps, the texture, and the music that allow the reader to watch the scenes of Swan Lake unfold in the imagination.
Of course, all this is set in the Golden city of Manaus, the cultural center of the Amazon, with its cobbled streets, extravagant storefronts, the architectural marvel that is the Opera House, and the well-dressed crowd, juxtaposed against the wilder, untamed Amazon.
I still liked A Song for Summer and The Morning Gift over this book, though, as there were some points in the dialogue between Harriet and Rom that was more flowery than necessary, although the resolution was equally satisfactory as her other romance novels.
The second book in this review is Journey to the River Sea, which is for a younger set of readers (around the level of Star of Kazan).
In this book, a young English girl named Maia comes to live with some distant relatives, the Carters, in the Amazon together with her grim-looking governess Miss Minton.
Miss Minton turns out to be a pleasant companion, but Maia’s relatives are not as she thought they would be, and the twin cousins she hoped to befriend make her life a living hell. The Carters also firmly believed in living their proper English life right in the Amazon, so Maia’s new home feels more like a dungeon that smells strongly of Lysol.
Despite the Carters’ lack of warmth or affection for her, Maia’s friendly spirit soon wins her some new friends, and makes her new life a grander adventure than she set out for.
I liked this book because although there are also parts of the book set in the city of Manaus, Journey to the River Sea showcases the wilder side of the Amazon in all its lush jungle glory — the tropical marketplace, banks of golden sand, swamps and finger lakes, primal music, sweet-smelling orchids and wildflowers, a profusion of vegetation, and a menagerie of exotic animals like macaws, capybaras, kingfishers, otters, anacondas, giant sloths, howler monkeys, tamarin monkeys, and so much more!
There is a striking line at the beginning of the book pertaining to the Amazon, and life in general, which Maia takes in throughout the course of the story: “For whether a place is a hell or a heaven rests in yourself, and those who go with courage and an open mind may find themselves in Paradise.”
Like the characters typically found in Ibbotson’s books, the spunky protagonists are nature lovers who prefer to commune in the wilderness than get caught up in the trappings of civilization, while the villains are comical, money-grubbing and perfectly loathsome. There is a lot of fun to be had, especially when the story comes into a Dickensian twist and the kids must fend for themselves to solve the challenges they encounter along the way.
I didn’t like this book as much as The Star of Kazan, but it’s still one of Ibbotson’s greatest works, I think, and one of the most imaginative children’s books I’ve read in recent time.
The Amazon is not one of my favorite settings, but after reading these two books, I’m beginning to like it already!
My copies: A Company of Swans, trade paperback (for an amazingly low price of P20 at Book Sale); Journey to the River Sea, hardcover with dustjacket, mooched from abroad
My rating: A Company of Swans, 3.5/5 stars; Journey to the River Sea, 4/5 stars
*cover photo courtesy of sxc.hu