Although it’s not written explicitly for a younger audience, Prospero’s Children is a good transition for older tweens/young teens ready for more involved novels. In fact, if it were published today instead of 14 years ago, it would probably be considered YA.
Fern, our 16 year old protagonist, is very logical and scientific, used to controlling her oblivious father and the world around her. When she and her younger brother Will spend the summer in the English countryside at an old house her father inherited, strange and supernatural things start happening. Fern slowly accepts that she has the Gift, she has a role to play in a drama unfolding across time and space, and her world will never be the same. She has to learn who she can trust, and in the end she has to stand alone to do what she thinks is right.
There are lots of familiar tropes—wizards, witches, an idol possessed by a demon, mermaids, unicorns, a woman turned into a wolf, the power of names, a portal to another time and place, and the legend of Atlantis, to name some of the prominent ones. Yet it’s an original story, beautifully written. Much of the story takes place in England in the 1980’s. The last third or so takes place in ancient Atlantis.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
I’m going to assume you’re suggesting this to a kid who is 12 or 13. I’m not going to cover all the things that might be problematic to a younger kid.
Fern goes out to a restaurant with an older man. He orders wine, and she drinks too much of it. This is definitely called out as a bad idea on several fronts, but since she’s in England, it’s not illegal so it doesn’t carry a lot of the implications of the same scene if it were set in the United States.
Sex and Love
After washing off in the ocean, Fern and Raf—her male companion—have sex. It’s not explicit, but it’s not “fade to black” either. It just sort of happens. They don’t talk about it, she doesn’t agonize over it, and she doesn’t regret it. It’s clear that as long as they’re together, their relationship is sexual, although it’s never graphic. They do love each other—the kind of love that can potentially span eons. Brought together at the end of the world, they love with the kind of intensity such situations can encourage.
Raf had been sort of involved with another girl, who promised that if Raf saved her brother, she would have a relationship with him. However, her brother died before Raf could save him, so she’s angry when she finds Raf. Raf says that agreeing to be with him just so he’d save her brother was whoring—she takes some offense to this, but overall it’s just part of the emotional conversation they’re having. She acts jealous of Fern, and Fern briefly feels jealous of her, and then they both realize such jealousy is misplaced.
Love, in the end, means letting go. It means sacrifice. Yet even so, there’s some hope that it can perhaps overcome all.
When Raf joins Fern in the ocean, she’s at first a little nervous because she’s naked, but she quickly gets over that. In Atlantis, it’s not uncommon for female characters to wear gauzy clothes that you can see through. The two female characters who participate in a huge ritual both wear clothes that are very clingy—one is described in detail, so we know that truly nothing is hidden by the gauzy veils draped over her body. However, nudity isn’t inherently sexual. It’s almost a sign of power.
Death, Violence, and Gore
There’s nothing in here that quite approaches the levels of, say, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But several minor characters die, and it’s pretty sad. The novel doesn’t linger, but doesn’t dismiss their deaths, either. A boy of about 10 years old is sacrificed with a knife. It’s known that the ruler of Atlantis routinely uses human sacrifice and torture, although—aside from the sacrficie previously menitioned—we don’t see it on screen. In the aftermath of a catastrophe, there’s mention of some body parts—a hand floating like a starfish stands out in my memory. A villain takes a nasty blow to the head which is described in some detail. However, for the most part, these things are mentioned as Fern notices them, and not dwelt on.
Family and Other Adults
Fern’s dad means well, but he’s utterly clueless. She doesn’t even attempt to tell him the truth about anything and he’s often away from home, especially when he’d be most useful. Her mother died years ago.
Will, Fern’s 12 year old brother, is an interesting character. He’s definitely a minor character—in fact she pretty much explicitly reminds him of this because he isn’t old enough to even know yet if he has the Gift—but he’s a help to her and they obviously love each other. I appreciated that he wasn’t a pest who got in her way, even if he was annoying sometimes.
Fern and Will have other adults in their lives—both magical and non-magical—who help as much as they can. The story falls on Fern because fate leads her there, not because all of the adults in her life are incompetent idiots.
Raf’s mother is sweet, loving, and insightful. She wants what’s best for him and for Fern, but won’t stand in the way of the dangerous things they feel they need to do. His step-dad needs to be avoided, but we never even meet him. He’s just an obstacle they need to work around.
Gods and Religion
It’s not clear if there are evil gods or if they’re demons, but there are definitely ancient dark supernatural forces at work.
The young neighborhood pastor is a good guy—one of the few adults who believes that there are mysterious things going on. His faith isn’t threatened by things that don’t quite fit what he’s been taught—in fact, he sees those limitations as an example of humanity’s arrogance. He thinks that occasionally God lifts the veil to remind us of how little we actually know. His wife thinks Fern must be lying or mentally ill, but he says that he’s going to keep a very open mind, because of his faith in God.
With its young protagonist and familiar tropes from many children’s stories, this is a good transition for readers who are ready for slightly more adult dark fantasy. It relishes words in a way that too few books written for younger readers do. Looking back on it, it feels more dream-like than the “OMG the world is ending!” feel that most similar stories have. I highly recommend it for mature tweens or young teens who enjoy the act of reading as much as they enjoy being propelled forward by a story.
Note: The version I read was published in Great Britain—I have no idea what differences aside from spelling and some terminology might be found in the US version.
Prospero’s Children by Jan Seigel
Published in 1999 by Voyager
First in a trilogy, followed by The Dragon Charmer and The Witch Queen (since Fern is older in these books, it’s possible that they’re also aimed at older readers—I’ll let you know once I’ve had a chance to read them)
Read a paperback borrowed from a friend