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The Hundred-Towered City
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review by David Hebblethwaite
One day, Jack, Annie and Davey Kettle return home to find a note from their parents that reads: "Making a quick trip to 1903 Prague. Be back in a few minutes. If we're not in when you get home, help yourself to supper." You see, their father, Roger, has invented a time machine, and he and his wife Kate have used it to go investigating her family history. Of course, things don't go to plan: Roger and Kate get arrested, and send one of their ancestors with the time machine to fetch the children. It's up to Jack, Annie and Davey to rescue their parents - and I don't need to tell you there are complications along the way.
The Hundred-Towered City put me strongly in mind of the fantasies of Edith Nesbit; it has the same joyous, breezy energy. This is especially striking at the beginning, where Garry Kilworth has no truck with making a big thing of his premise: there's a time machine, it's used a few times, the parents get stuck in the past, now let's get on with the story. This is a smart move, recognising that even Kilworth's young readers will probably be familiar with time machines as a concept, so there's no need to introduce one at length. It lets the novel get down to business all the more quickly.
The Kettle children themselves also seem very Nesbit-like, albeit in modern dress. There's not much in the way of individual characterisation: Annie, for example, is described as being (to Jack's mind) 'stroppy'; this manifests itself as a brief, "As if!" and some sullen text messaging, and is then mostly left behind. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it fits with the jolly-adventure idiom in which Kilworth is working: these young characters are not there to be individuals, but to be children who have adventures, rather like Nesbit's protagonists.
Which means that The Hundred-Towered City is a jolly adventure, yes? Well, kind of... In a way, it falls between two stools, being not quite adventuresome enough in some respects, and a little too jolly in others. To consider the former first: about a third of the way in, the three children become separated, with Jack forced to join the army, Annie sent into household service (though the girl's education inspires the lady of the house to take Annie on as her companion), and Davey ending up on the stage. They stay separated for a big chunk of the novel (though Jack is still able to visit Annie). This doesn't stop the plot progressing, but it does give a sense of the story being brought to the protagonists, when they really ought to be driving it - there isn't the constant sense of movement that an adventure story really needs.
Another quality that The Hundred-Towered City lacks is any real sense of drama or danger, not even when characters' lives are ostensibly under threat - it's quite a lark, really. Jack has a thought towards the end that it's tempting to read as something of a mission statement for the novel: "The best adventures were brief affairs that came and went, leaving one with memories of exciting times, but no lasting scars." Well, I'm sure these are the best kinds of adventures to live through; but I would suggest that the best adventures to read about - even if they're ultimately japes - are those that leave a few scars behind somewhere. The Hundred-Towered City is rather too polite for its own good.
There are other ways in which the novel disappoints. Kilworth provides a lot of factual information, but it's not deployed very effectively: the secondary characters tend to offer the Kettle children 'fun facts', which may be interesting enough, but don't necessarily create an atmosphere. The most vivid passages are those that invite us to experience what's being described; such as Jack's introduction to the barracks, where one can really feel the texture of the rough towels and carbolic soap, and one has the sense of standing there in those spartan living quarters. If only there were more of this, and less of the fact-dropping.
Kilworth's use of the fantastic in this book is interesting. His Prague is inhabited by many beings from myth and folklore; but, just as his treatment of time travel is matter-of fact, so his use of magic is quite low-key. It's not so much that you don't notice it, as that it's part of the fabric of life here; after one encounter with a man who removes his head, Jack says, "I wish we didn't keep running into these supernatural creatures - it's very off-putting" (shades of Nesbit once again in that line). It's not so off-putting to the reader; but any sense of awe one might hope to feel is muted. As I say, this is an interesting approach to depicting magical happenings, but I'm not sure it really works.
I'm aware that I have focused largely on the negative in this review; but this reflects how I feel when I think about The Hundred-Towered City. Yes, there are times when it's funny and exciting, and when everything comes together - make no mistake about that. But there aren't enough for this kind of story. I've read stories by Garry Kilworth in the past which were full of brio and sparkle, and which were a joy to read. This novel is fine as far as it goes; but it falls well short of Kilworth's best work, and it saddens and frustrates me to have to say so.
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