Dickinson, Peter. The Ropemaker. New York: Delacorte, 2001. ISBN 0-385-72921-9, hc, $15.99.
(This review originally appeared in Mythprint 39:5 (#242) in May 2002.)
Reviewed by Laura Krentz
At the beginning of this powerful tale, young Tilja is feeling disappointed and bitter after learning that her younger sister will inherit the family’s farm because Anja has begun showing the magical talents passed down from their mother that Tilja lacks. Tilja dearly loves the homestead and now has no idea of her place in the world or what she will do with her life.
For more than 19 generations, the Valley where Tilja lives has been protected from the barbaric marauding horsemen of the north and the greedy armies of the evil Empire of the South. Legend says that long ago, a man and woman had gone to the wizard Faheel to ask for his help. He enchanted the forest on the southern border so that only women could travel through it safely without getting sick, which kept out the soldiers of the Empire. Tilja’s mother still performs the ritual of singing to the cedars, but now the magical protections are fading, so much so that her mother is severely injured by an animal of the forest when she is called to sing one winter night. Further north, young Tahl’s grandfather Alnor still sings to the snows that protect the Valley’s northern border, but the enchanted barricade of the great glacier there is beginning to melt. Tahl and Tilja meet at the winter Gathering where their grandparents speak up about the failing protections, but the people vote to wait and see what happens. The two teens and their grandparents decide that they must go on a quest to save their Valley.
Tilja, Tahl, crotchety old Meena, blind Alnor, and Calico, a very ornery horse, set out on a journey to try to find Faheel and get him to renew the protections of the Valley. They take Meena’s magic wooden spoon, Axtrig, which was enchanted by the magician, to point the way. But they soon find out that any use of magic is dangerous in the Empire, which has powerful magicians trained to detect and control magic. However, Tilja discovers a talent of her own. She has a sort of anti-magic that hides the magic of the spoon and helps to neutralize others’ magic. Her gift may be the key to their survival in the Empire and to helping to save the Valley. The quest is fraught with danger and adventure at every turn. Along the way, they have several encounters with an elusive character called the Ropemaker who appears in various guises. He has a powerful type of rope magic that may be able to stop time itself, for “time is a great rope. Only as great a magic can unweave it.” When Tilja finally meets Faheel, he is so old and weak that she fears he won’t be able to help them after all.
Dickinson, author of the Changes Trilogy, has produced a quest fantasy and coming-of-age story set in a fully realized world. The Valley resembles a Scandinavian country, while the Empire has a Middle Eastern feel. There is a wonderful logic to the different types of magic in the book, which explores the nature of magic and time. The characters each have their own personalities and quirks, and there are some humorous moments when the grandparents go through some changes of their own. Through her experiences, Tilja gains confidence in her abilities and begins to discover what she wants to do with her life. The story is told in rich, evocative language with echoes of archetype and myth. Harry Potter fans ready for a more challenging read will enjoy this. Also give it to fans of Diana Wynne Jones, Garth Nix, Philip Pullman, Gail Carson Levine, and Dia Calhoun. Adult readers who like fantasy will enjoy it, too.