Orla is trying to make the best of her life since the death of her mother. She blames the Haulers for this – the riverboat people, men who hire out their services to transport goods up and down the river. They are a wild, independent people. Orla is independent too. Her mother was a healer, a woman wise in the properties of plants and Orla has a gift – she can talk to plants, and the natural world is her natural home. But now her world is threatened by a sickness and it is claimed that nature itself is to blame. There is a poison in the water and infecting plants and people. Orla is sure that her mother knew this and knew a cure. But can she work it out? It is a race against time.
Orla is a lively, independent character far from perfect but all the more believable for her faults. Young readers will warm to her independence and empathise with her efforts and decisions, while recognising that these decisions may be flawed. They will sympathise with her in her situation. Other characters also attract attention – Idris the Hauler boy passionately seeking a cure for his bother, Ariana trying to escape from her uncle’s house. They are not a comfortable trio but it is their journey to understanding and cooperation that is central to the story. Inevitably, as a fantasy, the narrative confirms to many of those familiar tropes – the fanatical villain, the time-constrained quest, the central message – here very much an ecological one; the destruction of the environment caused by human greed. If there is magic, it is plant based and an attractive feature of the book are the chapter headings introducing plants and their properties, Indeed, young readers will be able to find them in their own gardens – especially Honesty. If the cure for the sickness is a little pat, this is in keeping with the genre and the expectations of its readers. Townend has an attractive style that avoids overlong descriptive passages or too many details, concentrating rather on action and dialogue to create an engaging and satisfying narrative. A very enjoyable addition to any library shelf from a debut author with more to offer.