Back to Ruritania

A young Lipizzaner at the Spanish Riding School, Vienna. Copyright David Monniaux.
Some authors seem to be in a bit of a time-warp. Their writing is very reminiscent of the way books were written 20, 30, 40 years ago, sometimes even longer. For some this doesn't work - the whole book seems outdated, and fails to hold the reader's imagination, it's probably badly written as well, so that even when this kind of book would have been in vogue, it's hard to imagine it being successful.

Others are well-written, but trying valiantly to hold on to an outmoded storyline fail to entrance a modern reader. You can even end up feeling sorry for the writer (if only they'd lived 20, 30, 40 years earlier, you sigh).

And then there are the books that although in many ways hark back to an earlier writing style, still have a modern edge, and manage to be vibrant examples of what made the earlier style so successful.

I came across Eva Ibbotson's The Star of Kazan purely by accident, and am very glad that I stumbled upon it. Set in Vienna and Prussia in the first decade of the twentieth century, Ibbotson's childrens' tale is part Ruritanian romance, part woman-in-danger novel. It is stunningly good, great fun, and reminds you why so many novels of the late nineteenth / early twentieth century (eg Robert Louis Stevenson, Anthony Hope, Frances Hodgson Burnett) crossed over the child / adult fiction barrier seamlessly. Don't let the fact that it's placed in children's fiction put you off reading it. I only discovered it because it had been misplaced on an adult fiction shelf.

Star of Kazan is a Ruritanian novel, set in some of the real places that lay behind Ruritania. Ibbotson herself grew up in Vienna in the 1920s and '30s; fleeing with her family to the UK following the Anschluss. Her love for the city is evident in the book, as Vienna is lovingly portrayed, that big, bustling, vibrant city at the heart of a crumbling, and soon to be extinct, empire.

Little Annika is found abandoned on the steps of a church, and adopted by the servants of a prosperous, intellectual, Viennese household. Annika has a happy, loving life in Vienna, surrounded by friends and her extended-adoptive family; but she always longs to find her mother, and discover the truth behind her abandonment. When Prussian nobility arrives in Vienna claiming to be the long-lost mother, Annika is entranced and swept away to a forbidding schloss deep in Prussia. It soon becomes evident though that all is not well at Spittal, but quite what is going on?

This novel has all the elements that children love - animals, friendship, adventure, mystery, and a touch of comedy. But it's also a story that I think a lot of adults will enjoy too. Lovely book, great writer.


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