Reviews /

Wildsmith – City of Secrets

Authored by Liz Flanagan
Illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton
Published by UCLan Publishing

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You always had a gift with the horses, says Rowan’s father in her dream at the beginning of City of Secrets, the second instalment in the Wildsmith series by Liz Flanagan. And the dream turns out to be a true premonition, as Rowan soon discovers at her peril.

The young protagonist of the story – who, in book one, was revealed as a new and powerful wildsmith – continues to discover her previously hidden affinity for animals and magical creatures. Away from the roaring war engulfing her native city of Holderby; separated from her beloved father, who is still there, working in the Palace stables and keenly hoping to see peace and safety restored when the Queen returns. She is hidden in the relative tranquillity of Grandpa’s cottage – a wise and powerful wildsmith himself – near the Dark Forest.

Rowan’s life is, however, ever closely threatened by the menacing advance of the Estrian poachers in their relentless search for magical creatures to capture and use in the war.
In this second book, Rowan, having previously saved an orphaned baby dragon, finds herself in charge of a young pegasus in a dangerous race to save him from the clutches of the evil poachers and take him to safety on a remote island. The adventure will see her return to her city in secret in a daring feat of agility, courage and determination, aided by loyal friends and magical allies.

City of Secret, like its predecessor, is a thoroughly enjoyable read, recommended for Lower Key Stage 2 readers who will not fail to fall for the charm of the main characters, especially Rowan. The author vividly describes the breathtaking races and chases above the walls and around the heavily guarded streets of the city of Holderby and full of enjoyable tension and suspense. Rowan is an endearing and brave heroine; the freshness of her innocence and hopeful nature is well contrasted by the looming darkness of war, evil and betrayal.
The cast of magical creatures is largely drawn from familiar myths, but the author’s twists give them a more grounded and naturalistic dimension: they are baby dragons, young winged foals, colourful, ethereal witches, a domesticated, loyal wolf. The illustrations by Joe Todd-Stanton are appealing, delightful, and utterly satisfying in the way they reflect and marry the story, adding extra charm without overpowering it.

This is a gentle and captivating tale of war and dark deeds versus dedication, bravery and a tender heart. However, below the charming surface, the underlying themes are serious and worth revealing through shared reading and discussion with a young audience. There is a definite environmental vocation to it, and especially a concern for the treatment of animals with their well-being and freedom defended and promoted by the few remaining wildsmiths, who are able to connect with all creatures and understand their language and needs. Pegasi and dragons, after all, represent the wildness of all creatures whose right to a free and undisturbed life is constantly endangered by the needs, whims and designs of humans.

Another interesting theme to explore and discuss with an audience of 7-9-year-olds is the personal journey and growth of Rowan herself. In the way she comes to terms with imposed change, becomes more determined, makes her own decisions, she reflects this age group’s conquering of new milestones in self-awareness and increasing independence. What kind of hero is she? Does she conform to other models the children may think of? Would a boy act in the same way? Rowan grows up because of the inevitability of having to confront dangers and challenges; she wonders and doubts her own identity. ‘Why was everything so complicated suddenly?’ she asks herself. Would the children make the same decisions?

In conclusion, an appealing and enjoyable book well worth being read by 7+-year-old children and particularly suitable as a short read for a thrilling shared storytime.