The Terrible Trickster
by Frances Watts
written for ages 9-12 | recommended with reservations
published in 2013 | Allen and Unwin | 128 pages
Strange happenings have occurred at Flamant Castle. Sickly sweet sugar has replaced salt in the soup, and newly washed white sheets have turned mysteriously yellow. It is up to "Tommy" and her animals -- a cat, a pigeon and a "crocodillo" -- to find out who the prankster is. Tommy and Sir Benedict, the bravest knight in Flamant Castle, share a secret that helps solve the mystery: they are both able to talk to the animals.
"Tommy" is short for Thomasina, a character shown to be courageous, sensible, ambitious and on track to becoming the first ever girl knight at Flamant Castle. But when she is accused of being the "terrible trickster", she springs into action to clear her name. The plot thickens when twice the allegedly guilty trickster is found to be innocent.
Scenes are well imagined within a mysterious castle setting. Candles light up thick stone walls, messengers lurk around alleys, pages summon knights-to-be into banquet halls with high ceilings for important meetings. Characters such as blacksmiths, pages, physicians, laundry girls and stable hands are at work within the castle walls.
Animals wield a great deal of power in the story. A child reading the story could easily be misled to believe the animals are the moral arbiters of right and wrong because they are presented as the advisers and the ones "in the know". When the animals mistakenly believe Reynard is to blame, the cat's eye-witness account is accepted without question, and the boy is asked to leave the castle. As the story develops, the trickster pranks are solved by the observations and logic solving abilities of Tommy. However, the process is only possible with the help of the animals who can see other worldly things such as ghosts. Tommy's own powers of observation are not enough to solve the mystery.
The book is a light tale that many young girls would enjoy, but there seems to be an underlying feminist theme in the way the characters behave and are drawn. Tommy would be just another girl trying to make her way up the ranks, but to do this the author has painted the young boy Reynard in a very poor light. This seems typical of a great many children's books with strong young girl characters making their way in the world. To do this it is almost taken for granted that the male character will be pictured as dull, worthless and cowardly, or just weak and insipid, irresponsible, and showing no moral qualities or leadership. Reynard is proud and spoilt, cowardly, jealous of Tommy, cruel to the cat, and has no redeemable qualities. The last scene of the book shows Tommy the sword girl jubilantly venturing out for a private sword lesson with Sir Benedict, while Reynard is forced to have the physician apply an ugly paste of part carrot juice and part pigeon droppings on his eyes to stop him seeing untrue things such as ghosts.
The book is part of a series about Tommy. Also in the series are The Secret Sword, The Poison Plot, Tournament Trouble, The Siege Scare, and Pigeon Problems. It is available from fishpond.com.
A former children's librarian, Jane Fagan is currently a full-time mother of two.
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