The Shadows of the Past series, by Wendy Leighton-Porter takes children on a magical time-travel adventure similiar in some ways to The Magic Treehouse or Canadian Flyer. However, the Shadows of the Past is somewhat different. Instead of jumping back and forth willy-nilly, the books move roughly chronologically forward starting with destruction of Atlantis, which the author bases on the Thera volcanic eruption. The Lancelot children, Joe and Jemima, are searching for their parents with the help of their friend Charlie, their talking cat Max, and a magic book.
My children loved the first book. It had just the right amount of tension. It included mention of a couple of characters from Greek mythology, and a brief intro to Linear B form of writing. The characters take just the right amount of time to figure out how things work (for example, that the magic owl charms function as universal translators). The talking cat provides a great deal of humor without seeming too out of place. My children loved it.
My biggest complaint is the line implying that being female and afraid go together. “Don’t be such a girl. What could possibly go wrong?” Joe says to his sister when she expresses fear of venturing into the magic cloud. Nor did I appreciate Joe’s complaint that wearing the owl charm as a shoelace around the neck would be “girly jewellery.” Those details could be easily edited out as I read it aloud but I disliked their presence as I try to raise my children relatively gender neutral.
The bulk of the first book consists around the problem of convincing at least some of the Atlanteans to leave their home before it will be destroyed, and escaping from the angry priests. The local priests take the talk of leaving as disloyalty towards Poseidon. Though I doubt the author intended the stories to reflect modern problems like climate change when I came to the part about the priests being angry, I thought of Bryan Fischer arguing that only God can control the weather and if people are worried about climate change they should pray to him. The Atlantean’s courage at leaving afterward such warning is perhaps a result of their suspicion that the children are messangers of Zeus or that the religious establishment has gotten out of touch with the people and has little hold (a state I can only hope applies to Bryan Fischer too).
After being given a free ecopy of the book Shadow of Atlantis I quickly purchased a copy of the second book, Shadow of the Minotaur. My children were excited as the Minotaur is one of their favorite characters when their play is based on Greek mythology (and it frequently is based on it). However my eight year old soon became concerned that he knows what will happen. The myth is already written, what can the children do? Yet his younger brother was still eager to hear the story and he soon got drawn in too and accepted the story’s premise that without the children there to help Theseus and Ariadna would likely have failed in their task. (Were the children destined to step in? The book avoids that discussion but my children, trained to analyze time-travel stories according to Star Trek logic wondered about this.)
The author dealt well with the question of what type of hero would abandon the girl who helps him on a rocky island instead of taking her to his home as promised. I felt her answer to what type of princess would help her father’s enemy a little less convincing, though her Ariadna proved entertaining to the children. I wished for more realistic detail on the day to day life but my children enjoyed the fast moving story and that’s what counts.
In some ways Wendy Leighton-Porter takes a myth of Atlantis and by connecting it with one of the island suspected of being its origins, she takes it out of mythology into historical fiction of sorts. I half expected her to do the same with the Minotaur story, perhaps introducing the possible traditions/rituals that might have lead to the myths creations. Her story is simpler and probably more entertaining that it would have been if she had attempted this, and I suppose in any story where one can accept magical time travel and talking cats one can accept Minotaur too. Yet in some ways the time travel and talking cats are the gimmicks that allow the story whereas the minotaur is crossing the myth/history border. But its all good. The book is good.
Now for the really fun part… I was able to ask the author, Wendy Leighton-Porter, some questions and I must say I was delighted by her playful answers.
Can you tell us some about the process of getting ready to write? As a teacher of French, Latin and classical studies you probably knew much of the history already, but did you have to do additional research for the specific topics? How well did you know your plot before you start the research or to what extent does it grow from what you’re reading?
Up until this stage in my series of books, I haven’t really needed to do much in the way of research as most of the topics were things I’d taught over many years and I was, therefore, familiar with them. When I set out to create the series, I’d already got the plots for the early books mapped out in my head and only needed to check a few details to be accurate. For example, in The Shadow of Atlantis I wanted to include a few symbols of an ancient language, Linear B, and so I had to do some research on that. It was the same with book 4, The Shadow of the Pyramid, where I chose to include some hieroglyphs. I do like to check my historical facts as I go along, just to be sure I’m not making too many glaring errors.
In the story I’ve just completed, set in 1066 just before the Norman Invasion of England, I decided as I was writing that it would be fun to change all the place-names to their Anglo-Saxon equivalents. That didn’t prove to be too easy, but the internet is a wonderful tool for writers these days.
I’m currently working on the eighth adventure, all about King Richard III and the two princes in the tower. Again, it’s a topic I know well, but I’m re-reading many of my history books on the subject to refresh my memory.
What is the research like for you? Do you know what the plot will be before you start the research or do you come up with the plot afterwards?
My series will ultimately comprise 16 stories and I already have all the titles, as well as a vague idea of the plots for each of them. However, the subject of each book will be a topic I already know something about and my research will mostly be centred on checking facts and adding historical detail.
I thought you dealt rather skillfully with the challenge of Atlantis being doomed, yet having the children feel they could accomplish something to help. In time travel books you can’t have kids change history too drastically, but you don’t want them to just sit at the sidelines and watch bad things happen either. Could you share anything about how you deal with that?
I knew that I wanted my young time-travellers to at least try to alter the course of history and sometimes they almost succeed. In fact, without giving too much away, in the book I’m currently working on, I intend to play around with history and allow my trio to achieve something which might be considered impossible, in order to prevent a very unpleasant event from taking place. I’m not saying any more than that about it at the moment – you’ll just have to wait and see …
All three children have real consciences and Jemima is especially sensitive. They believe the book is sending them to places for the purpose of helping people, as in The Shadow of Atlantis, when they try to warn the inhabitants of the imminent destruction of the city. In the third adventure they attempt to save the Trojans from the fate which awaits them and, in book 5, the same thing happens in Pompeii when the children know that Mount Vesuvius is about to erupt. In each situation, I make sure that they are able to help at least some of the people they meet to escape the disaster. I’m very aware that some of the subjects in my books involve fairly horrific historical episodes and I don’t want my stories to be too gruesome or scary for my young readers.
Were there times in the book where you wished you could be more historically accurate? Or times when you wished you could be less accurate?
I consider my stories to be history with a twist, a device used by many other authors. By taking a true historical situation and weaving it into a fictional story, you can allow yourself the licence of playing around with the past. If I’m writing about a legend, such as Atlantis, no one really knows the truth anyway – but I still like to get in a certain amount of accurate historical information. Sometimes I’m a real stickler for getting things right too, when other people tell me it really doesn’t matter. But it matters to me! With The Shadow of Atlantis, I wasn’t happy that I had my Atlantean family escaping to the island of Crete, because I knew that Crete was devastated by the eruption of the volcano and subsequent tidal wave from Thera/Santorini, my chosen location for Atlantis and probably the favourite contender for the site of the legendary city. However, I needed those characters to be on Crete for the sequel, The Shadow of the Minotaur, so that’s where they had to go.
The children return in time to the same time they left, but they are aware of time passing since their parents have left. I presume this is because the parents have no way of returning. If they are found, and do return, will time move back to the moment they first left? Will the whole time the children lived with Uncle Richard cease to be part of the timeline?
Wow, that’s a tricky question and no mistake. I’m afraid I had to ask for Max’s help with this one, because, being a Schrödinger’s cat, he’s more familiar with these things than me – physics just isn’t my sphere of knowledge at all.
Apparently, the conundrum can be elegantly explained by reference to Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity. Although relative velocity time dilation is obviously at work, in order for the children’s parents to travel forward rapidly from prehistoric Atlantis into the Common Era, it is clear that space-time warping, causing gravitational time dilation, must also have taken place. Max’s calculations show that this could have been caused by a special condition of the Higgs field, which, in acting to break the symmetry laws of the electroweak interaction, may have caused the gauge bosons responsible for the weak force (which don’t forget, at certain energy levels is synonymous with electromagnetism) to become many times more massive than predicted by the Standard Model.
That said, he believes that the Shadows from the Past book is somehow responsible for a strong relative velocity time dilation effect. To combine the two effects, Max used the Schwarzschild solution to the Einstein field equations, calculating the necessary co-ordinate velocity by deriving the values for i) radial velocity and ii) a variable, equivalent to the Newtonian potential required for the known gravitational time dilation.
Embarrassingly simple, I know, but Max is such a clever cat. I found it so hard to break it to him that I just made the whole thing up and hoped nobody would ask me questions like this!!!
Okay, that reply was just for fun – sorry! This is my real answer: I hadn’t really considered the implications of what will happen at the end of the series, but I’ve taken a little time to ponder the conundrum and have reached a conclusion. The children’s constant comings and goings, while in possession of the magic key, involve no time passing during their absence, but because the parents are constantly moving forward through holes in time without the magic key, the time zone works differently for them; it can’t cancel out the experiences the children have at home. So, if and when the parents return to the present, time will have elapsed since their disappearance and the children’s timeline will remain unchanged. Phew! Have I got out of that one or will I have to say it was all just a dream?!
What authors are you inspired by?
I am constantly reading and usually have several books on the go at once, both fiction and non-fiction. I also try to keep up to date with what’s new in Middle Grade fiction – there are currently some fantastic authors out there, producing quality books for youngsters. So I guess my inspiration comes from a whole variety of sources, but I suppose I’m influenced by any author who can create a gripping plot, believable and sympathetic characters, realistic dialogue, and who has the ability to transport their readers to another place, immersing them so completely in the story that they just don’t want it to end – that’s a true gift.
If I really have to name names, I would mention Robert Harris, whose novels I really enjoy and in children’s fiction, J.K.Rowling; the Harry Potter series was inspired, as well as inspiring. Also, I recently read a children’s book by a new author, which ticked all the boxes for me and left me thinking, “Wow, I wish I’d written that!” The Secret of the Sacred Scarab by Fiona Ingram is the first in a series and I shall definitely be reading the rest when they’re published.
I loved those answers, and they left my husband wanting to know if the cat is perhaps named after Max Planck?
This blog post is part of a Blog Tour organized by Renee at Mother Daughter Book Reviews. In return for participating I received a free copy of the ebook but, as always, was under no obligation to praise the book.