What a felicitous find! I was searching for Susan Cooper’s young adult novels when this previously unknown-to-me work by Susan Fletcher caught my eye. What a surprise to learn that it concerns ancient Persia (a general interest of mine) and the Magi (Brian and I once brainstormed a novel not unlike Susan’s after a one-week visit to Iran) and that the author lives just an hour and a half away!
All that excitement could have been preparatory to a disappointment, but it most definitely was not. Fletcher writes both engagingly and “elegantly” (in the words of a NY Times reviewer of Shadow Spinner). I am (alas) one of those readers who often skims over descriptive passages, but I sat spellbound while Fletcher’s magical metaphors conjured up mirages before my very eyes. Only they seemed much more substantial than mirages.
Fletcher’s blog confirms that she has actually ridden through the desert of Iran on a camel; her narrative could almost convince me that she did it 2000 years ago. She has clearly researched her topic, both on site and in print. For readers of Alphabet who are disappointed to reach the end of the story, Fletcher’s appendix on historical events and places mentioned in the book also makes interesting reading.
The characters, too, are appealing and believable, including the self-indulgent, affected magus Melchior, the scholar Gaspar, and the truly pious Balthazaar. The main character, Mitra, masquerades as a ragged adolescent boy throughout most of the book. Mitra and her younger brother, Babak, have been separated from their noble family, which was exiled when her father tried to stage a coup. When not evincing maternal care for Babak, Mitra is largely preoccupied with her quest to find the surviving exiles and regain her rightful position.
The words of Mitra’s grandmother ring repeatedly in her ears: “Remember who you are.” The determination to comply prevents her from forging any bonds of true friendship with individuals who, by right of birth, are “beneath” her.
I appreciate that Fletcher doesn’t shrink from subjecting her characters to the consequences of their all-too-human attitudes and decisions. I will leave it to you (nominally, anyway) to guess whether Mitra alters her perspective on herself and the rest of humanity and, more significantly, what it is that touches her heart. The questions she faces are still relevant in the 21st century: What makes us who we are? Who, in fact, are we (complete with weaknesses and blind spots)? And what does it mean to remember it?
The ending is satisfying without being trite. Fletcher weaves a magical tale that is grounded in hard realities. For a plot summary and Fletcher’s notes on its genesis, click here: Alphabet of Dreams.
I am delighted to be able to announce that Susan Fletcher will be a guest at The Book Nest at noon on Thursday, October 16. I can also recommend Shadow Spinner (also set in ancient Persia) and The Dragon Chronicles. All three of us (ages 7, 42, and 54) have read the first installment, Dragon’s Milk, and are looking forward to reading more. (But don’t confuse the Oregon author with the British Susan Fletcher, author of Corrag, The Silver Dark Sea, and other titles).