A Cage of Roots
Magic exists beneath our feet, if we only know where to look...
Growing up in a New York orphanage, Ayla has no idea who her family is. It is not until she comes to Ireland that she finds out just how deep her roots really are. Then her past rises up to haunt her and seeks to destroy her as Ayla is abducted and buried alive in the bowels of the earth. Above ground, her three best friends set out to find and save her from a fate that has been lying in wait for centuries. Guided by Ayla’s uncles, they must make a treacherous journey that takes them down among the very roots of time.
I heard an interview with Matt Griffin on local radio. He was good in the interview and his book sounded intriguing, so I went off to my local book shop and bought it.
And it is wonderful! It is aimed at children of ten years and older. The age suggestion surprises me a little as there is some quite advanced language in it, but it is a great book for stretching a child’s vocabulary without them realising it. (I loved eleven-year-old Gabriel Phelan’s review on the Lovereading website: “I would recommend this book to kids at the age of about 11‒13, as it does have a tiny bit of inappropriate language in it.” He’s right: it does ‒ but just a few naughty words, so I don’t think too many ten-year-olds are going to be started on a path of degeneracy because of it. Gabriel also says: “A Cage of Roots is a very gripping, exciting and magical novel. It is very intriguing and a real page-turner.” I can’t argue with that.) The reviews from children as young as nine show that kids will love this book – but it does have quite a few dark and scary bits in it.
It opens right in the heart of the story (something which many novelists would do well to note), with thirteen- (or fourteen-?) year-old Ayla waking up in a dark, small hole underground. It is a brilliant first chapter. The story of how and why she ended up there is unfolded quite slowly through the book (again, novelists take note). Her thoughts introduce us to her friends, her family and her background.
The next chapter introduces us to the other main characters – Ayla’s friends, Finny, Benvy and Sean, and her uncles, Lann, Fergus and Taig, who are all giants of men and with whom I fell in love with totally. The rest of the story is about how the three teenagers and the three men have to “travel” to try to rescue Ayla. And it is outstandingly well written.
The story is quite a dark fantasy but is not without humour. The three rescuing teenagers face up to their demons, show great courage (but not unrealistically so, as they have times of almost-debilitating fear and dread), are fiercely loyal to each other and Ayla, and put themselves in danger for the sake of friendship and conscience. In this they are reflecting what the uncles went through years before.
Ayla meanwhile is also showing courage (never mind fighting her attackers, what about eating that goblin stew? [don’t read this at teatime]) in the face of the seemingly hopeless quest to evade her exceedingly icky and scary captors. She has no idea why she has been abducted, where she is and what is going to happen to her. But the story ends with Ayla recognising and accepting her destiny and leading the reader into the second book of the series … which isn’t yet published!
The story is illustrated by the multi-talented Matt Griffin (his day job is as an illustrator). They are dark, brooding and scary in themselves and you can be sure that as they are drawn by the author they reflect what he wants you to see and read.
The story is set in Ireland and is based on Irish mythology. Knowing Ireland and its mythology is not necessary for enjoying the tale. The Irish names are anglicised, so shouldn’t give any trouble. There are a few slang terms that are typical in Ireland but not in the UK, and a couple of references to the game of hurling, but again not anything that will throw non-Irish readers.
I had one or two instances of “why?” and “how?” as I read the book, but they didn’t pull me out of the story and don’t really need explaining in a book for a young reader, who is more likely to accept “that’s just the way it is” as an answer.
Although I’m not the target audience for this book (being, ahem, just a tad too old and not very knowledgeable about Irish mythology), I loved it and will buy the next one as soon as it is published.
It would make a great animated film (with the author doing the graphics, of course).
Editorial Input & Design
Very professionally produced and edited.
Cover: Drawn by the author. It doesn’t reproduce brilliantly as a photo on a website, but is lovely in the flesh with its embossing.
Internal design: Very professional, but the paper isn’t quite good enough quality to really show off the pictures. The pictures really add to the book, so it would be nice to see them a bit more clearly. I think I would have done without the symbol on the facing page of the picture so that the picture could be placed immediately before the chapter opening – as some chapters open on a right-hand page, the picture is placed on the next spread, which breaks the flow.
I think a companion website to this book (and series) would be really useful and interesting to readers. It could include easy-read stories about the mythology the books are based on, together with the choices of names for the characters (and pronunciation for one or two), clear pictures from the book (and maybe others that didn’t make it as far as publication), a brief explanation of hurling, and pictures of the modern-day attractions mentioned in the book (the Burren, Newgrange, Aillwee Cave, Ardee) and their histories. That’s not to say that the book can’t stand on its own, but readers could invest in it more by having a resource to give insight into the places and events mentioned in the book, especially if they are not Irish.
Book Clubs & Reviews
Great for a children’s or teenagers’ book club as there would be plenty to discuss: facing your own demons, friendship, loyalty, the notion of having protectors, one’s destiny, courage. I would caution against nibbles including goblin stew, though.
What others are saying: Goodreads readers give it 4.17 stars (6 ratings). (It’s not long been published, so there aren’t many reviews yet.)
Love Reading 4 Kids Soundbite reviews from children and a couple of grown-ups
Love Reading Full reviews from children
Seomra Ranga Reviews from the target audience
Buy & Author
Published by O’Brien Press
ISBN 9781847176813 / ePub 9781847177575
O’Brien Press (paperback €7.99; ePub €6.99)
hive.co.uk (paperback £5.67; ePub £5.38)
Kenny’s, Ireland (paperback €7.99, free shipping)
O’Mahoneys, Ireland (paperback €7.99 + postage)
Amazon (Kindle £5.99/$6.99; paperback £6.99/$11.00)
Follow the author:
Website www.matthewjgriffin.com (see more of Matt’s illustrations)
Links of interest:
Clare Champion, 16 April 2015 Interview with the author
Love Reading 4 Kids Interview with the author (below the reviews)