Sylvie and the Songman

Sylvie and the Songman, by Tim Binding, illustrated by Angel Barrett (US edition 2009, Random House, 340 pp, middle grade).

There was a Book Blogger Appreciation meme last week that asked us to share a book that we read because of a fellow blogger's recommendation. Sylvie and the Songman is a book I read because not one, but two fellow bloggers recommended it--Kate at Book Aunt, and Doret at TheHappyNappyBookseller. So when we went to the bookstore as a treat, and everyone else was getting a book, which meant I had to get one too, this is what I chose.

I can see why Kate and Doret recommended it.

In some books, the magic hits you in the face on page one. On others, it comes creeping in on little cat feet...this book falls in the later category. Nothing magical happens at Sylvie's school, until the day George's kite almost flies off with their teacher, and even that could be explained by physics. There is nothing strange about Sylvie's dad, until we see the instruments that he's built, hidden in the locked shed--strange constructions that search for the notes between the notes, that might yield "the songs of the sea, the songs of the earth, and, the most precious of all, the songs of the animals" (page 16). But even these instruments--the Furroughla, the Shinglechord, the Featherblow--can be believed

And there is nothing too terribly strange about Sylvie's life in general, until her father disappears, and reality is left far behind. The terrible Woodpecker Man begins to hunt her, and two of the passengers she's shared her train ride with every day for years turn horribly wrong:

"The woman with kid gloves had thrown open her canvas bag and was beating out a violent rhythm with her wooden knitting needles on what looked like an egg-shaped drum. Rabbit-teeth was beside her, doing the same with his walking stick, now somehow broken in two. A savage beat seemed to be rising from the carriage floor, turning Sylvie's bones to jelly, her feet to lead. The woman turned towards her, her face alight with fury.

"Drum her fast," she cried. "Don't let her get away!" (page 94)

But Sylvie and her friend George escape from the train, and are taken under the paw of a friendly fox. From him they learn that they must somehow foil the Songman, the mastermind of all the evil pursuing them. It is he who has sent the Woodpecker Man and the Drummers to catch them, he who has taken Sylvie's father prisoner, and he who will stop at nothing to gather all the songs of all the animals to himself, so that his is the only voice heard throughout the world...

I was enthralled. I delighted in the imagination of the author, and even wept a bit.

The author sets up the Woodpecker Man and the two Drummers beautifully--they are scary, and wonderfully unique, and just all around excellent sinister villains.


And this is a huge but, one that spoiled the book for me. About halfway through, once the story gets to the Songman, Binding seems to have decided these three excellent villains weren't necessary anymore and we never learn who they are, or why they are, or what happens to them in the end! Not even in a "I'm not saying because there might be more stories about these sinister villains" way. There's even a bit where it would have made perfect sense to have a barrage of crazed woodpeckers attack, and instead we are given a random encounter with a seemingly unmotivated seagull. The Drummers get to feed some imprisoned animals. And the Songman lacked the mythic dimensions that the other three had in spades, so he didn't make up for it. Sheesh. So disappointing....

So although this was in many ways a lovely book, I can't recommend it wholeheartedly. Sigh. But do go read Kate and Doret's reviews--they liked it lots!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I deleted my first comment due to sentence error.

    Charlotte, I am happy you enjoyed it somewhat. I loved that scene on the train.

    I did want to know more about The Woodpecker Man though I figured that would come in the next book.

    I wasn't too worried about the Drummers figured they were simply hired help.

    And your right the Songman doesn't grab you like the Woodpecker Man or the Drummers. But when I was that deep into the story it wasn't the Songman that held me but Sylvie and George.

    Was it Allamanda that made you weep?

  3. Aha! The old Wasted Secondary Characters Syndrome! Only they were way cooler villains than the Songsinger himself--good point. I've decided I'm working on the 85% theory lately... I've met so many imperfect books over the past few years that if 85% of the book grabs me, I forgive the other 15%. Thanks for the review!

  4. hm, this sounds interesting, but not at the same time! I will have to think about it. :)

  5. I love that passage you quoted! You're right, those are wonderfully scary villains. It's too bad they were the secondary ones. Still, this does sounds like a very delightful book.


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