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Buy The Owl Service from AmazonUK edition3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsI first attempted to read and review Alan Garner’s classic The Owl Service in the earliest days of my legacy website,, and I can’t think of many other instances where I was so thoroughly outmatched and out of my league. To say I simply failed to process Garner’s reimagining of ancient Welsh myth placed in a 20th-century context would be the greatest of understatements. Age and experience have allowed me to fully push past my cultural unfamiliarity and meet this stark and haunting tale on its own terms. While Garner lacks the accessibility and universal appeal of his contemporary Susan Cooper (whose Over Sea, Under Stone shares many conceptual and tonal similarities with this book), The Owl Service is a unique and striking work that staunchly refuses to underestimate its readers.

This is a story that might well have influenced such writers as Charles de Lint, Guy Gavriel Kay or Tim Powers. You can even see traces of Garner in books like Megan Lindholm’s Wizard of the Pigeons. Garner takes a low fantasy approach, where magic and myth exist in the cracks and crannies of mundane real life, to a story that examines class resentments and interpersonal family dynamics.

Though The Owl Service has been considered a juvenile (the general term for books for young readers, in the decades before middle grade, young adult and “new adult” became common marketing categories) since its inception, its themes, style and narrative approach feel very grown up. Garner employs surprisingly little exposition, and the text isn’t very descriptive until Garner needs to trowel on the atmosphere in the climactic chapters. Our protagonists, their relationships, and the unfolding supernatural mystery must be gleaned by the reader from dialogue and minimal action. If Garner knew he was writing for kids, he had profound respect for the literacy of young readers of his day, and I suspect it was deserved.

Our trio of protagonists are in their mid-teens. The story unfolds in an old family estate in Wales, left to Alison by her still-living father to avoid paying estate taxes. Alison and Roger are step-siblings, and Gwyn is a Welsh boy and the son of the housekeeper, Nancy. Roger’s mother shamed the family with her infidelities, and his father, Clive, is now remarried to Alison’s mother Margaret, who, in an interesting choice, is never seen though frequently discussed. The gardener, Huw Halfbacon, is presented as a simpleton and a yokel, and modern readers with their greater awareness of tropes will probably figure out easily that he’ll turn out to be the wise sage who knows far more than other characters suspect.

The story begins when Alison and Gwyn hear some curious scratching coming from above her bedroom ceiling. Finding a hatchway to the musty attic, they discover an old dinner service with plates featuring intricate designs of what appear to be owls. This discovery deeply perturbs Nancy. Alison begins sketching the designs and folds the resulting drawings into paper owls, only to make the startling discovery that the designs disappear from the plates, and the paper owls soon also disappear. Meanwhile, in the billiard room, plaster falls from the wall, revealing the image of an enigmatic woman made of flowers.

Local legend is revealed: the tragic story of Blodeuwedd (from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion), a woman made of flowers by a magician for the hero Llew Llaw Gyffes, cursed never to marry a human woman. Blodeuwedd betrayed Llew by falling in love with the warrior Gronw Pebr, and the two plotted Llew’s murder. But Llew returned in the form of an eagle, and after being restored to human form by Gwydion, the mage who created Blodeuwedd, Llew avenged himself against Gronw, throwing his spear with such force that it pierced a standing stone Gronw was hiding behind. I suppose if you’re going to kill a Welsh warlord and steal his magical flower-wife, you’d better do the job right the first time.

Gwyn and Alison spend more time together, much to the disapproval of Nancy and Roger. But anything like a budding love between the two is played very subtly, not at all like the overt reliance on genre romance formula of 21st century romantasy, and Roger’s dislike of Gwyn is all about class arrogance. Roger mocks Gwyn’s desire to rise above his station, so to speak, by studying elocution records and making plans to attend school in England so he won’t be stuck as a shopkeeper in Wales. Nancy also holds deep resentments, as we learn she was engaged to marry the original owner of the estate before his untimely death, which would have made her the lady of the house and not just its domestic. Nancy has a lot of anger but is easily persuaded not to resign (right up until she no can longer bear it) by large handouts from Clive.

But the theme of love and betrayal takes center stage as Alison and Gwyn learn that by sketching the designs on the owl service, she has managed to free the spirit of Blodeuwedd, and an ancient curse passed down the family bloodline will be forced to play out the flower woman’s tragedy all over again. Tensions between the characters (whom, I must admit, many readers will find challenging to like) are effectively dramatized as the environment descends into stormy chaos. While the ending feels quite abrupt and arguably somewhat anticlimactic, overall this is an absorbing and multilayered tale that demands attentive reading, and in its best scenes, Garner conveys the soul crushing emotional trauma of love lost and unfulfilled like few of his peers.