I am a long-time fan of both Garth Nix and Sean Williams (more so the latter’s SF than fantasy), so the idea of a collaboration between the two – aimed at children – is exciting indeed. And I was fortunate enough to hear Sean Williams speak about the act of collaboration at Natcon50, where he discussed the different things that each brought to the writing: that (I think!) Williams wrote the first rough draft, then Nix added bits and changed bits, and sent it back again… and so on. I was particularly amused to hear that the two got into some serious brinksmanship over who could be the most gross, since they are both little boys at heart, so I intrigued to read and discover what this looked like in practice. (The answer: they do indeed manage to be quite gross. I am not a fan of rats or cockroaches.)
Troubletwisters harks very strongly to the classics of fantasy written for younger readers. The main characters are twins: Jaide and Jack. (In talking about the story, Williams admitted that he has long been intrigued by twins and their use in fiction. As I see it, it’s almost like you’re getting a character for free – and it means that you always have the opportunity for your characters to discuss things, disagree about things, or be worried about someone.) Their father is away a lot, and they know nothing about his side of the family… until a disaster means that they have to go and stay with their mysterious paternal grandmother, where they begin to learn about some strange abilities. These plot devices could have felt hackneyed and stale, being by no means original; instead they feel familiar, but by no means comfortable. Williams and Nix use the twins as a means of exploring different reactions to scenarios and individuals, and there are indications that the two will have different experiences of their abilities that will be explored in later books of the series (there will be another four). The trope of leaving home and going to an alien place is as old as fiction itself; it can be, and is used here as, the catalyst for self-discovery and learning about the world. The strange relative and slightly intimidating new environment – Grandma X and her weird house – are perfect for the target age-group: visiting unknown relatives can be a very scary thing indeed.
The plot moves quickly: the twins arrive at their Grandma’s house and soon things start to go wrong. Additionally, weird things happen when they are around: a sign their mother can’t see, a freak whirlwind, talking cats…. There is, of course, a reason for this – it’s their nature – and the narrative is largely concerned with the pair beginning to learn about their abilities, and what it means to use them. Of course, they can’t simply do this is peace and quiet. Instead, they are confronted with a rather nasty villain, and it’s in dealing with this villain and its impact on their environment that they really start to learn about what it means to be “troubletwisters”. While the twins are allowed some breathing space – Williams and Nix don’t pretend 12-year-olds can simply go on throughout the night – the main action takes place over only three or four days, so it does feel a bit relentless. Since this is certainly how it feels for Jaide and Jack, that’s a perfectly reasonable feeling for the reader.
As with Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom series, which shares a certain tone with Troubletwisters, it’s unclear what country this book is set in. Grandma X lives in Portland – but not the one you’ve heard of. Reading as an Australian, I could well believe that this was set on the Victorian coast. Having visited the UK, I can imagine it set there, too, and I imagine that setting it in America would be as easy for readers there. This ubiquity is no doubt good for getting international readers; it also gives the book a certain Everyplace vibe. This could happen to anyone, anywhere.
I have two, fairly minor, quibbles with this book. The first is the naming of the twins. I quite like the names Jaide and Jack… but those names are short for Jaidith and Jackaran. These names simply do not work to my ear – Jackaran in particular seems too complicated, and I am not a huge fan of made-up names in a real-world context. I really hope that there is an explanation for the names in later books. On the same topic, but in the opposite direction, I was disappointed by the lack of originality in naming the villain (which I won’t reveal here). It seemed too mundane for something that so threatening.
Overall, then, this is a marvellous opening to what promises to be a very interesting new children’s fantasy series. It sets up the main characters as attractive and interesting, although not without their problems, as well as introducing some supporting characters who will no doubt go on to be important (did I mention the talking cats?). There is clearly a problem to be resolved – what to do about the villain – as well as a quest, in learning to use and control their abilities. Plus, of course, there’s the issue of their slightly fractured family, which will no doubt continue to be an issue that the twins have to deal with. I have faith in the two authors that this series will continue to be enjoyable, without being predictable.