The belief in magic harks back to Persia and to the pre-Islamic period of the Zoroastrians. Magi, the term for Zoroastrian priests and learned magicians, is the root of magic, which has always played a prominent role in Persian literature. The past two decades have seen a surge in magical-themed stories in the Western world, as well, thanks to the universal appeal of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. And now, Amy Ephron, the best-selling author of “A Cup of Tea,” “Loose Diamonds,” “White Rose” and “One Sunday Morning,” has shifted gears to tap, with brilliant assurance, into the endless wonders of fantasy in “The Castle in the Mist” (Philomel Books, Penguin Random House) and its companion “Carnival Magic” (Philomel Books, Penguin Random House).
“The Castle in the Mist” introduces us to the brave and spontaneous Tess and her logical brother, Max, who are sent for the summer to Hampshire, England, to visit their Aunt Evie. Their father, Martin Barnes, having taken off from work for a few months to tend to their ill mother, is now reporting on the war in Afghanistan.
On an extraordinary evening when there is the rare occurrence of a blue moon, red moon and super moon, Tess wanders off to find her way into a castle — or is it a museum, shrouded in the mist of magic?
Here, she meets William, who announces that he has been expecting her, warning her to “stay away from the hawthorn trees.” We will soon learn why. Before long, Barnaby, the butler or keeper of the grounds — characters tend to mysteriously appear in different roles at different times and places — announces that on this night “strange things happen.” And they certainly do, as the siblings embark on one adventure after another, replete with a magical key that opens locked gates, and a wooden horse that comes to life, leading them to mysterious worlds, where they’ll face one fantastical obstacle after another, the ever-present voice of their father a powerful guide: “If you get lost … try to get back to where you started if you can …” “In games and in life, take advantage of what you have.” “Calm minds have a better chance of solving things.”
With the same serene and elegant prose that has made her a beloved storyteller, Ephron raises universal questions that children, and most adults, frequently grapple with: “If she’d found the key to someone’s ‘house,’ does it mean she has the right to use it? … If someone doesn’t know the answer to a secret, can you trust them not to try to find out? … If two people think something has happened, did it happen? … If someone knows a secret can you trust them not to tell?” And above all, the importance of doing the right thing, such as asking to return safely home to loved ones, rather than wasting one’s precious wish on a horseback ride on the beach at night.
“Amy Ephron raises universal questions that children, and most adults, frequently grapple with.”
The delightful journey continues in “Carnival Magic” the next summer, when Tess and Max find themselves in England again, this time in South Devon. And, once again, as in “The Castle in the Mist,” magic is in the air. A carnival has come to town and the siblings are swept away into a more dangerous world than they experienced a year before. A hair-raising ride on the Ferris wheel tests the bravery of Tess, who needs “to believe in herself.” There are acrobats and games, a mud swamp teeming with strange creatures, and a scary house of mirrors that reminds the siblings of their father’s advice not to show anyone if they’re scared, which, needless to say, at times becomes difficult to do.
When Tess gets hypnotized and the wagon begins to move to unfamiliar places, readers are propelled toward more than “an excellent adventure,” as both the tea reader and the porter at the airport announce. Lorenzo, a shady character with an eerie laugh, imprisons the siblings and forces Tess to join the acrobatic twins, Alexei and Tatiana, in a dangerous aerial ballet show. Anna, the twins’ sister, has inexplicably disappeared, and the twins solicit the help of Tess and Max in discovering the fate of their sister.
But how will the siblings walk out of the moving carnival, when they have no clue whether they’re still in Devon or another part of the world, have no clue how to find their way back to Aunt Evie, let alone save Anna? Did I mention that the carnival has no gate to walk out of?
But Tess and Max are a resourceful pair, and Ephron’s portrayal of the strengthening of their relationship is heartwarming and realistic — the push and pull, the protectiveness and dependence on each other — so we trust that rather than fall, they will learn to fly.
Ephron renders this magical world with such assertive beauty that readers of all ages, who are fortunate enough to believe in the power of magic, will enjoy immersing themselves in the roller-coaster fun of these stories, and come to trust, even if for a short time, that in this “alternate universe” it is possible for us to come together and “touch the sky.”
Dora Levy Mossanen’s latest book is “Scent of Butterflies.”