Angie Sage

Septimus Heap, Book 5

Bloomsbury (2009)

ISBN: 978-0-7475-9415-4

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack, June 2010

This is a novel which is perfectly suited to that awkward part of the young adult audience that’s far too old for some young adult books, but not yet ready to cope with explicit depictions of sex and violence.  Syren handles mature themes openly and without patronising, but also without dwelling too much on certain scenes.  It’s also a good story, and well written.

Syren is book five in the Septimus Heap series.  It’s the first I’ve read, so I can confirm that it’s readable and enjoyable by itself – however, there are some obvious gaping holes, particularly in background and character development, that lead me to suspect you’d get a lot more out of this novel if you read the preceding four in the series first.  This is particularly obvious in the first two or three chapters.  After that, although it still tends to emerge from time to time, you’re likely to be so caught up in the fast moving plot that it will be easier to gloss over a bit of missing background.

The novel opens as Septimus and his friends, Jenna, Nicko, Snorri, Ullr and Beetle are following various routes to return home to the Castle.  Septimus, Jenna and Beetle, together with the dragon Spit Fyre, find themselves stranded on a beautiful island in the middle of the sea. Although it initially seems not a bad place to be stranded while the injured Spit Fyre recovers from his encounter with a bolt of lightening, it quickly becomes clear that some very odd things are happening on the island. There’s a Magykal girl named Syrah who seems to be up to something. And what exactly are those strange people up to at the cat shaped lighthouse?

Eventually virtually every major character in the novel will wind up on the island, and many things will be revealed.  Sage doesn’t shy away from violence, or from the growing relationships between some of the young people.  However, neither does she dwell on them for too long – you won’t, for example, find a young reader waking up with nightmares about gory murders.  The result is a quite engaging novel that doesn’t talk down to its readers.

Sage writes well; her prose flows well and this is a pretty easy read.  A strength is her characterisations.  Despite having quite a large cast, she makes each character distinct and real.  Most readers will find something to empathise with about each character. You’ll be interested in what happens to them.  I didn’t find myself so emotionally engaged that I’d say I cared deeply, but I was certainly cheering some characters on.  Sage does a very good job of depicting young characters who aren’t yet adult, but who certainly aren’t children any more either.  She captures their emotions and attitudes, and behaviours, very well indeed.

Septimus is an Apprentice Wizard, so he has some unusual resources at his disposal.  Although this is, of course, a fairly important part of the novel, Sage also gives plenty of time to her unmagical characters. These young people also demonstrate initiative and find a variety of ways to solve their problems. Even Septimus can’t just rely on magic; he must think about things and find intelligent (and sometimes caring) solutions to problems.

The plot is effective and enjoyable. There are some gaps; obvious links to the earlier novels, and some hints that there is another novel to follow.  However, Syren also contains a complete story and plot, and it’s easy to get caught up in that and not worry too much about the bits you’ve missed. Any reader should be able to follow and enjoy this story, and there are some lovely satisfying
conclusions to make reaching the end enjoyable.

Overall, I’d say this is a very good novel. It’s particularly well suited to a slightly older young adult audience, but a lot of other people will enjoy it. Older readers may find some aspects a touch simplistic, but are still likely to enjoy the fast-moving plot and lively characters.  Younger readers will enjoy it but perhaps not quite grasp some of the subtleties of the relationships between characters.  I’d recommend this, but I’d also be inclined to suggest it may be worth seeking out earlier novels in the series first.  I haven’t read them, so can’t speak to their quality; but assuming they meet the standard Sage has set here, you’d probably benefit from having followed the characters and overarching story from the start.