Book Review: Rowan of Rin Confronts Fantasy Tropes

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This little book that I took far too long to read utilized nearly every trope danger of fantasy—dragons, spiders, mountains, dark forests, swamps—all battled for the sake of a village’s necessity for water and for one boy’s love of his bukshah, maned, cow-like, herd beasts which he tends though it is usually a job for younger villagers. Rowan is considered too small, too sickly, too weak by the villagers, who look down on him. But he is forced to join a dangerous quest to scale the mountain, the rumored home of a dragon when the village Wise Woman ties him to her prophetic map when consulted before the quest.  He joins a group of the village’s strongest, bravest, most boastful adults—those that most consider him a burden and antithetical to their ideal.

I am reminded of young Bilbo Baggins the Burglar joining the quest of the twelve dwarves—who also take a difficult journey and climb inside a mountain and defeat a dragon, who also battle spiders that fear light in a dark forest.

Though Bilbo’s journey is farther, necessitating a broader world from J. R. R. Tolkien, Rowan’s world is intriguing for being only hinted towards. There are promises of a world beyond what the reader sees in Rowan of Rin in the village’s suspicion of outsiders like the Travelers who camp near the village every few years, bringing festival-like days of performances and trading fancies from outside of the valley, and in the revelation of a traditional journey undertaken by the village’s young children to learn to swim. But the world to which the reader is actually exposed, the culture that the reader gets to know in this book is very limited, to a village of perhaps less than 100.

This book had so much to recommend it to me. I find myself gravitating towards the smaller of the heroes, the ones that rely more often on kindness and friendship than on brawn. I in many ways romanticize the small village life and its smaller, more insular concerns. I use both in my own WIP. Reading so many novels where the fate of the world depends on the outcome of the novel’s story, reading a book where the larger world might continue on without dissolving into chaos even if the book’s quest is a failure can be refreshing. Rin would not survive of course without water, but the larger, only hinted at world probably would not know of any change in the valley until the Travelers came by some years later, and then only they would take the news of an abandoned village and unknown catastrophe to the world that would continue on as it had done but with a new ghost story to tell.

Yet still maybe because it was such an easy read, and its adventures seemed so episodic as the group was tested by first one and then another trope danger, the book took me too long to read; I began it first in 2017; I read 151 pages over a year and half. So I can’t say that the book grabbed and then held me. I can say that I enjoyed it whenever I returned to it, that the book was an easy book to pick up and put down. That quality is valuable too, and may make this book ideal for some lifestyles. Certainly it was a good book to carry around with me for long waits at doctors’ offices and car maintenance appointments.

I think too that because it does use so many tropes and is so short, this would be a good introduction to a young one just starting to read high fantasy.  The book avoids feeling cliche because Rowan himself is a different type of hero, and the adults, the typical heroes of the old stories, are one by one forced to confront their own insurmountable fears and weaknesses.  This book is as much about Rowan discovering himself equal to an overwhelming task as the adults realizing that they themselves are not as heroic as they tout themselves to be, that the qualities they have so valued are not enough.

I was a little off put by Emily Rodda’s occasional slip into omniscience. For the most part the story is told from the limited third of Rowan, but sometimes, especially in times when confronted by their greatest fears, the narrative slipped inside the minds of the adults. At one point, it slipped into the mind of one of the bukshah. These switches in POV were not always marked by breaks in the text, which when used I find alleviates some of my sense of being jarred.

That though again is a personal preference.

I do have to compliment Rodda’s skilled use of prophetic poetry, that ability that I so envy, to divulge and disguise the truth in that form. Her skilled use of this device rivals that of Rick Riordan. Though the map’s prophecies tell the characters and the reader how to achieve the correct outcome of each step of the journey, I was almost always surprised by what the characters needed to do to succeed, how the words needed to be interpreted.

The series continues. There are five books altogether. I’m uncertain yet whether I will continue to see how the world expands and Rowan and the villagers around him are influenced by their growing sense of a world beyond Rin. As I said, I enjoyed the hints of a larger world without seeing it, and I occasionally enjoy a more personal quest, so for me, it may be better to leave the world and the story where it is without allowing it—as I think it might—to become a greater, more world-altering story. This publication though wisely included a few pages of the next book, which I foolishly read, so I may need to continue simply to revisit the village of Rin.

****

Rodda, Emily. Rowan of Rin. New York: Greenwillow-Avon-HarperCollins, 2001. First published in Australia by Omnibus-Scholastic Australia in 1993.

Intended audience: Ages 8+.

This review is not endorsed by Emily Rodda, Greenwillow Books, Avon Books, HarperCollins Publishers, Omnibus Books, Scholastic Australia Pty Ltd.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

About Kathryn

My love of books has been carefully cultivated by the adults who raised me and also by the friends who love to share. My life has led me down long library shelves, to online forums, fanfiction sites, the front of a lecture hall, and into the desks of college classrooms. With an English degree and a couple master’s classes in Children’s Literature, I am now a bookseller for Barnes & Noble. I have been an editor for Wizarding Life Networks (the people who brought you Wizarding Life, Panem October, and MyHogwarts now HogwartsIsHere).

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