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Wren to the Rescue by Sherwood Smith

Published by Puffin Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Ever since she was found in the ruins of a caravan attacked by bandits, Wren has lived in an orphanage, first a small one in the high mountains and then the larger Three Groves Orphanage. It's a plain life, full of hard work meant to prepare the children for work as servants, or perhaps to apprentice to some of the lowlier trades. Certainly not to become a traveling player and have adventures, an ambition which aroused only horror from the keepers.

But she has found a friend in Tess, a small, quiet girl who had previously been set upon by the local bullies. In return, Tess has taught her to read from a book of historical plays, the younger girl's one treasure.

And then Tess reveals a surprising bit of news -- she is not an orphan at all, but the daughter of the king and queen of Meldrith, a distant country. She has been hidden at the orphanage because her royal parents attracted the displeasure of a powerful magician who has threatened a terrible revenge. But now that Tess is old enough to protect herself, they hope she can finally come home to stay and take her rightful place in their society. And better yet, Tess has been permitted to take one friend from the orphanage with her, and having come to know Wren and her dreams well, has decided that she should have an opportunity to escape the straitened life of the orphanage and perhaps even attain her dreams.

So off the girls go by magic to Cantirmoor, the royal capital of Meldrith. Always observant, Wren memorizes the magical gestures used by Mistress Leila, the magician who had posed as one of the orphanage Keepers in order to serve as a guardian for Tess, during the magic transfer. At the time it is just a fascinating bit of information to tuck away in case of future need, and in any case Wren is far more awed by the beauty of the palace and the courtly manners of the King and Queen, who welcome her with the same sort of warmth they do their own daughter.

But just as Wren is settling in and beginning to allow herself to believe that this sudden turn of good fortune is real, everything changes. The wicked King Andreus of Senna Lirwan kidnaps Tess by means of an elaborate ruse,, throwing the entire court into turmoil. Terrified that she will be sent straight back to the orphanage, Wren decides not to wait, and casts the transport spell she'd seen Mistress Leila perform earlier.

It takes her to the Magic School, which had been a momentary waystation on their trip from the orphanage to the palace. But it also alerts a number of very powerful people to Wren's previously unrealized magic potential. For magic on their world is something that generally requires years, even decades, of previous training in order to use. Clearly Wren has potential -- but right now they have an emergency to deal with, so they tell her to wait.

And thus she encounters Tyron, a struggling apprentice at the Magic School whose initial envy at her success is quickly overcome by Wren's unassuming nature. So he decides to take her off to the Free Vale, a haven protected by magic, where he hopes to find an ally in the search for Tess.

But Mistress Idres refuses to become involved, leaving the kids to their own devices. So Wren and Tyron, joined by Prince Connor, who's even worse at magic than Tyron. It's a journey that will take them through high mountains and ancient ruins, introducing them to giant birds and other magical creatures. Wren even comes close to losing her own identity as a result of one particularly ill-timed magical spell. But being able to rescue Tess and embarrass King Andreas will be more than worth all the risk.

Sherwood Smith has stated that while the Wren stories are not set on Sartorias-deles, she created the Wren world with the specific goal of having a world that would share many of the best characteristics of Sartorias-deles but be something that she could change at will. Thus we see many parallels, from many of the basic operating principles of magic to the wicked King Andreus of Senna Lirwan seeming rather like the infamous Schnit of the Chwair, one of the principal menaces of CJ and her friends in the earliest Sartorias-deles stories. And most importantly, the idea that girls can be heroes and have adventures just like boys, something that was even more important when she was originally writing them, a time when strong female protagonists were a daring rarity even in literature for adults, and children's literature was far more hidebound with rules about what was perceived as edifying and character-building.

Review posted January 1, 2009.

Buy Wren to the Rescue (Wren Books) from Amazon.com.