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The Whispering Mountain by Joan Aiken

The Whispering Mountain (original 1968; edition 1970)

by Joan Aiken

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402638,126 (3.8)21
Title:The Whispering Mountain
Authors:Joan Aiken
Info:Puffin (1970), Edition: New Ed, Paperback, 224 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Whispering Mountain by Joan Aiken (1968)



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This review is also available on my blog, Read Till Dawn.

I love Joan Aiken's books so much. Every year or so I go on an Aiken kick where I read a bunch of books in her amazing Wolves series. The thing about those books is that they always look so boring from the cover description and synopsis, but are actually amazing books full of humor, terror, mischief, and clever plot twists that make things fun. You always know the young main characters won't come to any real harm, but anyone else is fair game. Aiken's books are written for a less sheltered generation of children, where murder and terror are part of the story. This serves to increase the tension, and sweeten the reward.

Now for this specific book. I picked it up for a quarter at a flea market, very excited to find a Joan Aiken I hadn't read yet. I read it in one sitting (staying up a bit later than I really should have, more from an unwillingness to go to sleep than any driving desire to finish the book), and - well, and then I fell asleep. It was good, but it wasn't exactly thrilling.

This is a book with many pieces and people and plot devices, all rolled together in a way that makes things seem ridiculously complicated at first, but actually winds up fitting together perfectly in the end. There is a father and daughter team of gypsies, a nerdy-yet-inwardly-strong young boy, two nasty thieves, a prince, an evil Marquess (It took me a while to get it straight in my head that this is a male term), a monk, a foreign Seljuk (apparently some sort of Rajah), a bunch of dwarf-people, and many more wildly different characters. This is a story told in bits and pieces, where everyone pursues the truth from a different angle and then at the end of the book figure out the whole picture by talking to everyone else. This is a very clever way of telling the tale, because there are many "mini books" inside the big book, with the various main characters ducking and weaving throughout the stories of the other characters.

However, it's the story itself that just doesn't really appeal to me. Aiken is a genius at taking seemingly worn-out tales and making them fresh, but it just didn't happen for me with this one. Arabis is like a mix between Aiken's other main female characters, Sophie and Dido, and I have to say I like the others better. Ditto for Owen - I liked him, but I like Simon better. According to Goodreads this is book 0 in the Wolves chronicles (does that mean it's a prequel?). I don't really see how it fits in with the others at all, except for its similar time-setting. I love the later books far, far more, from the wonderful Wolves of Willoughby Chase that I first read in lower elementary school, to Black Hearts in Battersea, which is one of my later-discovered favorites.

If you love old-fashioned adventures full of danger, excitement, humor, and compelling characters, then I wholeheartedly recommend you read this series. I'm sure that many would like this book, but for me at least it just felt a bit too ordinary - and I kept getting flashbacks to George McDonald's The Princess and the Goblins. If you're a fan of the series and haven't gotten around to this one yet, then by all means read it. It's not that it's bad by any definition of the word - it's just not as good as many of the other books in the series. If you have never read a Joan Aiken and you want to, then start with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or Black Hearts in Battersea. Trust me, you'll be happy you did. ( )
1 vote Jaina_Rose | Mar 1, 2016 |
This was the fourth book in Aiken's James III sequence, but chronologically, it's a prequel, self-contained and entirely satisfying all on its ownsome. Full of wonderful Welsh dialect and phrases, it's an adventure set in the valleys and mountains and caves around Fig Hat Ben, the Whispering Mountain of the title.

We join the action more or less in full swing. Our hero Owen Hughes is bracing himself for a confrontation with some bullies, but soon has a lot more on his mind as the local Marquess has taken a hankering to take possession of the battered old golden harp found by Owen's grandfather, the curator of the local museum. Two thieves hired for the task make off with the harp, kidnapping Owen and making it look as though he is responsible. Aided by his friend, the herbalist daughter of an itinerant poet and an old wandering monk, Owen must retrieve the harp, capture the thieves, defeat the evil nobleman, help the mysterious people who live in the caves, rescue the Prince Of Wales and persuade his crotchety grandfather that he's not himself a villain.

Pure joyful adventure and escapism, this is thrilling and exciting and adventurous and packed with characters and incidents and ideas and mystery and atmosphere and all manner of good things. Fantastic. ( )
  Nigel_Quinlan | Oct 21, 2015 |
Fun. Highly predictable, of course - I knew the boys would either become Owen's devoted followers or come to a bad end as soon as I read the first chapter, for instance. But nicely done, well-written, and fun. I wonder who wrote the prophecy? Ah, Arabis says "one of the old bards" - prophecy was their stock in trade. Slightly odd (for Aiken) in that some of the good guys, or at least not-bad guys (the footman, for one) actually die. And the bad guys, of course. Happy reunions and sorting-out of futures... I don't think I'd read this before (hard to tell, because of the predictability), but I'm glad I have now. ( )
1 vote jjmcgaffey | Nov 13, 2013 |
The Whispering Mountain, which John Clute calls an "associate title" in his encyclopedia of supernatural fiction writers, seems at first glance to be unrelated to the previous three in Aiken's Wolves Chronicles, except for the fact that it is set in the same alternative Britain. Much like Susan Cooper's Over Sea Under Stone and The Dark is Rising however, it introduces characters that enter the mainstream of the storyline in later titles, though in a much less vital capacity than seen in Cooper's sequence.

When young Owen Hughes comes to stay with his stern, unbending grandfather in the small Welsh village of Pennygaff, he finds himself falsely accused of stealing the Telyn Teirtu, a golden harp with a storied history stretching back to the days of King Arthur and before... Setting out to find the lost treasure, Owen must contend with the arrogant Marques of Malyn, a mysterious foreign gentleman calling himself the Seljuk of Rum, and the Tylwyth Teg, the legendary "Fair People" who live inside the Whispering Mountain... A rich and entertaining fantasy, so steeped in the folklore and culture of Wales, that a Welsh glossary is included at the back.

I am fortunate enough to own a first (American) edition of this wonderful title, which includes the black & white illustrations by Frank Bozzo - sadly missing from later editions. ( )
3 vote AbigailAdams26 | Jun 28, 2013 |
Not strictly a prequel to the Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence (our young hero Owen Hughes re-appears around the time of the plot to slide St Paul’s Cathedral into the Thames at a coronation, in The Cuckoo Tree), The Whispering Mountain can nevertheless be enjoyed as a standalone novel. It also adds to our knowledge and understanding of Joan Aiken’s alternative history of the world in the early 19th century, sometimes called the James III sequence or, as I prefer to call it, the Dido Twite series (from the most endearing character featured in most of the books).

Set in and around the western coast of Wales, the tale features elements of Welsh mythology, Dark Age history and traditions of Nonconformism and mining, along with several other typical Aiken themes – such as Arthurian legend (revisited in The Stolen Lake), slavery underground (as in Is), mistaken identities (as in The Cuckoo Tree) and dastardly villains (as in all the titles of the sequence). Although convoluted, the plot draws you along to the inevitable conclusion, and as always Aiken doesn’t shy away from death even when writing for a youngish audience.

Of especial interest is the Welsh setting and use of language and traditions away from Aiken’s usual specialities such as the southeast of England. Living in West Wales, I was particularly intrigued to see aspects of different real localities transmogrified to suit the story and the conceit of an alternative geography of Britain (Malyn Castle is like Harlech Castle transferred to the region of Aberystwyth); and the use of Welsh phrases and idioms (there is a glossary at the end) when characters speak English struck chords even for someone like me with only a passing acquaintance with the language. I also loved the puns, such as the placename Pennygaff which, although it has a Welsh look to it (real placenames include Pen-y-Fan and Pen-y-Bont, literally ‘Mountain Top’ and ‘Bridgend’ respectively), is actually taken from the name for a type of popular but seedy early Victorian theatrical show. Malyn Castle (and its Marquess of Malyn) is a wonderful composite of malign (a good description of the marquess), melyn (Welsh for ‘yellow’, perhaps a reference to the marquess’ love of gold) and Malin Head (the most northerly point in Ireland, famous from the BBC Shipping Forecast, with its 1805 Martello tower looking very castle-like).

And the story? This is the tale of Owen Hughes, son of Captain Hughes of the Thrush and the grandson of another Owen Hughes, keeper of the Pennygaff museum. Bullied at school, young Owen falls in with heroes, villains and bystanders: who to trust with the ancient harp kept in the museum? The villains are often the most memorable, ruffians like Toby Bilk (slang for ‘cheat’) and Elijah Prigman (‘thief’), and blackguards like the Marquess himself. To right the balance there are kind monks, a future king, a travelling poet and his daughter by a Maltese beauty, Arabis Camilleri. The daughter, also called Arabis (a kind of rockcress; also Welsh arabus means ‘witty’) is the same age as Owen. And we mustn’t forget a mysterious Eastern potentate and the equally mysterious cave-dwelling troglodytes under the eponymous Whispering Mountain. Which does more than whisper in the denouement, in an underground version of the famous Devil’s Bridge inland from Aberystwyth.

As I hope this account suggests, this a book worth reading for its spirited liveliness and sheer inventiveness even if you’re not a dyed-in-the-wool Aiken fan. Maybe after sampling The Whispering Mountain you may be tempted to try the other alternate histories in the series. There’s even a chance you might not be disappointed. To add to the delight there’s a map but, sadly, only a handful of illustrations by the inestimable Pat Marriott in the original hardback and the Puffin paperbacks. Later issues, such as the Red Fox edition, include neither map nor illustrations, a miscalculation especially with books aimed at a young adult market but no less a mistake with readers of all ages.

http://wp.me/p2oNj1-t ( )
4 vote ed.pendragon | Nov 8, 2010 |
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» Add other authors (1 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Joan Aikenprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bozzo, FrankIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marriott, PatIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Robertson, MarkCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vess, CharlesCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I wish to express my gratitude to Kitty Norris, who corrected my Welsh, and to the Head Librarian of Brecon Public Library, who let me rummage among his archives.
First words
On a sharp autumn evening a boy stood waiting inside the high stone pillars which flanked the gateway of the Jones Academy for the Sons of Gentlemen and Respectable Tradesmen in the small town of Pennygaff.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0765342413, Paperback)

Winner of the Guardian Prize for Fiction

In the small town of Pennygaff, where Owen has been sent to live after his mother’s death, a legendary golden harp has been found. Knowing of the prophesy of the Harp of Teirtu, Owen must prevent the magic harp from falling into the evil clutches of its reputed owner, the sinister and diabolical Lord Mayln. But it won’t be easy. Owen and his friend Arabis are plunged into a hair-raising adventure of intrigue, kidnapping, exotic underground worlds, savage beasts...even murder.

For only too late will Owen learn that Lord Mayln will stop at nothing to have the golden harp.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:31 -0400)

With the help of some unusual friends, a young boy tries to restore the Golden Harp of Teirtu to its rightful owner.

(summary from another edition)

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