The Wind Singer

The Wind Singer

The Wind Singer is the first instalment of William Nicholson’s Wind on Fire Trilogy. It was first published in 2000 and was followed by its two sequels Slaves to the Mastery (2001) and Firesong (2002). It was awarded both the 2000 Smarties Book Prize and the Blue Peter Book Award in the category of “The Book I Couldn’t Put Down”. Since publication, the novel has sold over 600,000 copies word wide and remains an incredibly popular young adult novel today.

The story largely centres on a dystopian city called Aramanth. This city is divided into colour-coded districts (from the grey outer ring where to poorest people reside to the elite white class that governs the city). The district that a family is assigned to determines their lot in life, governing every aspect from what colour clothing they are allowed to wear to what kind of jobs they are allowed to perform. In order to rise in rank, every citizen must succeed in regular written examinations. To fail in these brings shame on a person’s entire family and can result in being shunted to a lower station.

The Hath family – Hanno, Ira, Kestrel, Bowman and Pinpin – have gradually grown disillusioned with how their society is run. When she is angered by her teacher in class, Kestrel public declares her hatred of the city and in doing so brings shame to her entire family. Her frantic escape from the city guards brings her face to face with the Emperor of Aramanth who entrusts her with a quest. She must seek out an artefact that was stolen from the city many years before – one that will enable the wind singer (a mysterious pillar that stands at the centre of the city) to play its song of peace.

But the quest to restore the wind singer is not an easy one. The device was originally disabled to prevent an ancient evil (known only as the Morah) from destroying Aramanth and if this entity discovers their intention to restore the wind singer there will be nothing to stop it from unleashing its merciless army on the city…

My feelings about The Wind Singer are incredibly mixed so I will start with the positive. The idea behind this story is absolutely amazing. It is vivid and memorable and will remain in the back of your mind for many days after you have finished reading.

The general tone of the story falls somewhere between Huxley’s Brave New World and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Nicholson presents a grim vision of how a society based on academic success breeds nothing but weakness and dissatisfaction. Although the High Examiner believes Aramanth to be a utopian society, which rewards those who work hard and punishes the lazy, it quickly establishes that this system only actually caters for those who are good at passing exams. Citizens like Miko Mimilith – the skilled tailor who can identify any type of cloth by touch alone – are doomed to live their lives in the lowest of stations purely because they do not have academic brilliance. The subtle satire that the author uses in his descriptions of Aramanth will resound within any teenager as it holds a mirror to their own school experiences, where one is constantly rewarded for their ability to study well and punished for failure.

As Kestrel, Bowman and Mumpo travel, they also see how different societies have adopted very different governing systems to Aramanth and the advantages and disadvantages of these. The nomadic tribes of Ombaraka and Omchaka have managed to form a treaty that prevents bloodshed, yet still remain at constant war with one another. The cities exist solely to destroy one another through bloodless battles, and view any outsider as a potential enemy (“If you’re not Barakas, you’re Chakas…That’s what Chakas are”). Even the Zar – the terrible army of the Morah – present a commentary on individuality. This army is presented as sterile and unbeatable (as every Zar dies they are immediately replaced but the army marches on without seeming to notice) yet the Morah fears the wind singer as it embodies the idea of individuality – the one thing that can destroy conformity.

Yet, the novel always feels as though it is lacking something fundamental. The Wind Singer is a relatively short book and everything in it seems to happen far too quickly. From the moment that Kestrel accepts her quest from the Emperor, the action in the novel is non-stop. She flees from the guards, then the old children, then Ombaraka and so forth. With no significant breaks in the text, all of this action becomes tiring very quickly as there is no suspense at all. Characters are merely thrown from one adventure to the other with no time for the reader to recover in between.

I also found the way that The Wind Singer was written to be somewhat off putting. Although the themes of the novel would be more readily appreciated by young adults, the style of prose is incredibly childish in places. Descriptions are simplistic – often repeating the same nouns multiple times in the same paragraph – and the author seemed entirely unable to adequately explain things that seemed to be important to the plot.

Why are Bowman and Kestrel psychic when no one else seems to be? I don’t think any reason is given for this beyond the fact that they just are. The old children reoccur as antagonists throughout the novel and yet it’s never really explained how they came to be so prematurely aged and why they can age others with a single touch. The biggest annoyance for me was that an important part of Mumpo’s backstory is revealed on the final page of the novel with little foreshadowing of this fact earlier in the story.

I also did not find the adults in the story to be particularly believable as characters. Although I appreciate that Hanno and Ira are rebelling against the restrictive system, I could not really connect with them as they seemed wholly selfish. They kept antagonising the Examiners until their children were in danger, paused momentarily to reflect on what they were doing, and then continued to antagonise the Examiners. It was very difficult for me to sympathise with two adults who seemed to care so little for what the consequences would be to those who depended on them.

Even the primary cast seemed to be very shallow. Although all three of them display noticeably different personalities, I just found them to be incredibly flat and forgettable characters. Kestrel spent most of the early half of the novel constantly insulting Mumpo for his intelligence, which just made me find her insufferable. Loyal Mumpo, on the other hand, fluctuated between being endearing and so incredibly irritating that I just wished that Kestrel would just leave him behind. Even Bowman, they only remotely likable character, was possessing of an irritating power (naturally unexplained) which served to be a deus ex machina on at least two occasions in order to allow them to escape from otherwise inescapable situations.

So, in conclusion, I would recommend The Wind Singer to you to read but only really for the themes that it portrays. Although the characters are flat and the descriptions feel as though they are lacking in places, the ideas that the story is founded upon are actually incredibly interesting and will certainly stick in your mind long after you’ve finished the novel. It’s unfortunate that this novel did not quite live up to its reputation as if the quality of prose had just been a little higher it could have been something really special.

The Wind Singer can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on Amazon.co.uk

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  1. Trackback: Slaves of the Mastery | Arkham Reviews

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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