Rum-pa-pum-pa-pum-pum! Rum-pa-pum-pa-pum-pum! The drumming sound was driving me crazy. Maybe it was a combination of the heat and the fact that I’d been walking frantically for the past half hour, but the faint drumming I’d heard as soon as I stepped into the used bookstore complex was getting louder by the minute.
I rounded the corner and found a bookshop I hadn’t noticed before, small and cluttered, with a labyrinthine arrangement of tall shelves. The Hindu storekeeper beckoned with a smile, so I ventured inside. Instantly, the drumming escalated into a frenetic rhythm: Pum-ba-da-bum-ba-da-pum-ba-da-ba-da-bum! Heart pounding, I backed into a shelf, causing a stack of books to fall on the floor in front of me. On top of the pile was book covered in snakeskin, with a strange word emblazoned on the cover: Shamanka.
But I did find this book at one of the used bookstores at the Bras Basah Complex in Singapore, and there really was a Hindu storekeeper, and the store did have a labyrinth of shelves. I pulled out a book from the shelf and this book fell out from under it, and I knew instantly that I had to have it. (And I got it for SGD5 t00, after bargaining with the shopkeeper!)
Shamanka by Jean Willis (Walker Books, 2007) features a girl named Sam, who lives with her wicked aunt Candy. Her only comfort is an orangutan named Lola, who has been with her since she was a baby.
Sam has been fascinated with magic for as long as she can remember — something her aunt disapproves of. One day, when she is locked up in her attic room because of a magic trick she pulled at school, Sam finds an old trunk, where she discovers a goatskin pouch containing a shard of human bone, an oyster containing three pearls, a tortoiseshell locket, and an ancient notebook bound in snakeskin.
Sam believes the notebook belongs to her father (she thinks he’s still alive), who is the son of a witch doctor. She finds out (from strange dreams and the notebook) that his father was on a quest to find the truth about magic and was planning to visit several people listed on one page of the notebook. When Aunt Candy disposes of Lola to punish Sam further, Sam decides she’s had enough and she escapes, then sets out to take up her father’s quest in the hope that the path he took will eventually lead her to him.
This book was every bit as fascinating as I thought it would be when I first saw it. I was actually sold on the book from just the cover, which, as you can see, mimics the notebook that Sam found inside the goatskin pouch:
And then there’s a contract at the start of the book, which, of course, I just had to sign:
The chapters are marked by bits of magical information, such as how to perform magic tricks like pushing a glass through a table and how to levitate (I can’t reveal the secrets since I’m bound by my oath! :D), a rundown of lucky charms, how to read hieroglyphics, the signs of the Zodiac, the Heimlich maneuver (which isn’t really magic, but useful, still), etc:
Sam explores the following questions in her quest: “What is magic?”, “What is illusion?”, and “What is real?”, inviting readers to ruminate upon these questions themselves.
It’s also very cleverly written — the anonymous narrator (whose identity is revealed at the end of the book) directly addresses the reader as a magician (It begins as such: “You might think you are alone, but I can see you. You can’t see me because I’m in disguise, but one day you will see me. You might even see straight through me. After all, you have spectacularly hidden powers.”) and showcases delightfully off beatand peculiar characters (including a pantomime, a moon lady, a psychometrist, a ventriloquist, a cat lady, a miracle inspector, and many more!).
The plot is also pretty compelling — it moves fast for a four-hundred page book — and the quest takes Sam to various exciting locations, such as the Covent Garden marketplace, train stations, an old warehouse, a testing laboratory, an exotic isle called “Eel Pie Island,” a ship full of superstitious members of the “Eccentrics Club of Great Britain,” a barge full of cats, Lourdes, an ocean liner called “Trinity”, Egypt, Mexico, New Guinea, China, India, Australia and The Solomon Islands.
I’ve read a lot of books on magic, but Shamanka is one of the most original. Jean Willis, the author, is British, and we all know they’ve got the magic tradition down pat, but it was a pleasant surprise that the book also tackles various forms of magic and the universal belief in it — old magic, theatrical magic, street performances, shamanism, wicca, mythology, modern-day divination, and even religion! I like how the book initiates a lot of questions, which really stimulates thinking. There’s also a lot of witty wordplay and great dialogue — Willis just keeps surprising and there is never a dull moment from start to end!
Refreshingly wholesome and intellectually stimulating, Shamanka came at exactly the right moment — I’ve been having a dry spell in the YA fantasy genre for a while now, and I’m definitely filing Shamanka as one of the best YA fantasies I’ve ever read (and without the “Soon to be a Motion Picture!” slapped on the cover too!), and this is also why I’m up at 4 am pounding out this review.
Maybe it really was magic that led me to this book!
Shamanka, trade paperback with dustjacket, 5/5 stars
Book #34 for 2010