I read William Corlett’s Two Gentlemen Sharing and fell in love with his wit and his style. When I investigated him as an author and found that he had written a children’s fantasy series, I was intrigued and rushed to order the first in the series.
The Steps Up the Chimney feels, to start, like a bad reflection of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Three children are sent to live with their uncle in a weird old house isolated in the country. The opening scene begins on an isolated train platform. There is no war in the background, but, instead, the children’s parents are off to Africa to help the beknighted on that continent.
Uncle Jack is an engineer who works with nuclear energy, but he’s gone off the grid to refurbish a Tudor mansion, along with his pregnant girlfriend, Phoebe. They have no television, no central heat, and are vegetarians. Corlett makes a big deal of their decision not to marry, which is voiced by the youngest sibling, Alice. Near the end of the novel Phoebe tries to explain to Alice why they’re not marrying (it would be hypocritical to have a religious service since they’re not church-goers) and that it doesn’t matter whose last name the baby carries. Alice is not quite up for this feminist approach, but there are three more books in which she can be softened.
The magic portion of the story involves the ability to inhabit and communicate with animals and a magician who (sort of) dwells in a hidden room in the old mansion. Again, like Lewis’ classic, the children explore the rooms of the house and try to explain why the angles do not all add up This exploration leads them to a magical space that belongs to two worlds. Like Lewis’ classic, there are talking animals. Like Lewis’ classic, there is good magic and bad magic. Even Corlett’s good magician, however, is, as one of the girls describes him, a misogynist pig. He cannot be blamed too much, however, since he’s over 500 years old.
The story has a rough beginning, but picks up pace about a third of the way through. However, it never quite leaves behind the feel of a formula production, which was disappointing.
As a huge fan of fantasy literature of this type for middle-grade readers, I still found this book enjoyable and look forward to seeing how Corlett develops his three protagonists and plays out the plot lines he establishes in this opening volume.