Revisiting a Novel of My Youth: Prospero’s Children, by Jan Siegel

By Jen P

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The Lost City of Atlantis, a mermaid, a wizard, time travel, and even a unicorn… Prospero’s Children has something for every fantasy lover. It’s no wonder I found this novel appealing in my youth. But did my love for it endure the test of adulthood?


Prospero’s Children is the coming of age tale of a young woman named Fernanda. Fern is wise beyond her years and sees what most others can not– a painting might come to life before her eyes, or a small clawed hand might reach from the shadows then disappear. Some believe she has inherited “the gift”, watered down since the fall of Atlantis; but most think she has a wild imagination. People don’t believe in magic anymore.

But long ago, a key was forged by a mad queen, hungry for power. A key to the land of the dead. That key was lost at the fall of Atlantis, and creatures older than time itself still search for it to this day. But Fernanda just wants to move back to the city, away from the musty little house in Yorkshire that her family inherited from some distant relative. The house is located far from anything she or her brother would consider fun, and it’s full of shadowy corners, creepy relics, and locked cabinets. It’s quite boring, or so she thinks; until a creature begins scratching in the night, rocks come to life, and a huge wolf appears on the moors. Fern soon finds that nothing in the little house is quite as it seems, and when she finds herself on the hunt for a strange key, she’ll have to grow up fast in a world that isn’t at all what she believed.


What a beautiful story…

  • The world Siegel created is magical, cozy at times, vast at others, and always vivid. It’s impossible to read this novel without visualizing every scene clearly in your mind. Here are the opening lines:

“The mermaid rose out of deep water into the stormheart. Being a creature with no soul, she was without fear of the elements which had engendered her. She rode the giant waves like a child on a switchback, sucked laughing into terrible black chasms of water, then hurled skyward toward the plunging clouds, riding the sea-crests with her hair lashing in the wind. Lightning illumined her for an instant, an efreet of the ocean, face a-scream with glee, slanting bones and elongated eyes sloping back from the pointed nose and tapering chin. It was a misshapen imitation of a human visage, formed perhaps by some pagan creator who had caught only the briefest glimpse of man.”

  • The plot winds down unexpected paths, taking Fern on a journey through time, space, and the stretches of Siegel’s immense imagination. Prospero’s Children is almost two tales in one. **SPOILER** In the last quarter of the book, Fern, having defeated the baddies in the modern world, leaves her cozy home to defeat another baddie in Atlantis. It’s an interesting turn, an extra trip, which is outside the norm for most fantasy plots.
  • I loved the different worldly insights each character brought to the tale. Some were especially relatable. I posted one in a Quotable earlier this week, and here’s a line of Fern’s on discovering her inner magic at the same time as becoming a woman:

“I don’t know myself anymore. There’s a new person growing inside me, a Me with whom I’m barely acquainted. I don’t know myself but I sense, I understand– sometimes I understand things I don’t want to understand. I suppose this is how a caterpillar feels when it’s turning into a butterfly. Only I’m not sure what I’m turning into. Maybe some vivid poisonous moth.”

I don’t know about you, but I still think I’m turning into a poisonous moth…

  • Also, there’s a bit of a romance at the end, and I’m a sucker for it.

And now, the trouble…

  • That romance I mentioned? It comes out of nowhere. It feels rushed, with no basis for love between the two characters other than being forced to tolerate each other under the bleakest of circumstances. Maybe I’m getting old, but I used to adore this love story. Now, I just wish Siegel had spent more time on it if she was going to include it at all.
  • The prose, at times, made me want to claw my eyes out. I mean, I get it: You’re a literary smartypants with a massive vocabulary. But to be honest, I don’t know how I made it through this book as a teenager. About a quarter of the words used in this novel were either made-up or so far above standard conversation level, I gave up trying to read them. Those words became a blur between the words I actually understood. And if you think I’m just an idiot who “don’t know how to read so good,” decide for yourself. Here’s an excerpt from later in the book:

“The strange nimbus which UUinard had remarked around the fractured dome had become more noticeable: its fiery luster was blurred as if by a thickening of the air, an imperceptible pollution, its resplendence disseminated into a corona that had the tincture of dust.”

I mean… damn. It’s pretty, but after a page or so of this, it’s painful to read. AND THERE ARE SO MANY PAGES OF THIS. Which brings me to my next point:

  • So. Many. Words. Every night, I’d fall asleep within five minutes of picking this book up. It took me three months to finish!!! THREE MONTHS!!! When I’m wracking my vague memories of Latin to understand a large chunk of the vocabulary, and there are twelve adjectives and fifteen adverbs in one sentence, it becomes tedious. I have no idea how I’m going to make it through the next two novels in the series.
  • But of course, I’ll keep reading because the most loathsome offense Siegel makes is a mother-effing cliffhanger.

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She’s preying on my addiction.


Overall, I give it 3 Shields:

3 SG Shields

Prospero’s Children is solid fare for those who enjoy fantasy, whether you’re a child or an adult. And like I said before, it has a mermaid and a unicorn, so…

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I will *try* to read the next two books in the series, but I need a rest before I pick up my pack and put my hiking boots back on. I’m only a third of the way up this Everest-like-story, and all the books I left in my TBR village below look incredibly appealing. Send all the good vibes, Y’all… and maybe a translator for all this fancy prose… oh, and a yak with wine and tacos. Yeah… wine and tacos. I’ve earned it after this hike.


Alavida, Geeks!

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