Maddigan's Fantasia, by Margaret Mahy (Simon and Schuster, 2007, mg, 512 pages)
All her life 12-year old Garland has traveled with her family's carnival, Maddigan's Fantasia, through a post-apocalyptic world. It's pleasant enough to perform on the tightrope in scattered settlements, secure in her place in her family and in the world. But then Garland watches in horror as a band of marauders attacks the Fantasia's caravans, killing her father. That same afternoon, two mysterious brothers and their baby sister appear from nowhere. They claim to have come from the future, on a mission to change the dark turn that their history is about to take.
They are accepted on sufferance into the Fantasia, and the carnival moves on, driven by its own promise to bring back to the city of Solis, a bastion of civilization, the solar converter it needs to survive. But two darkly powerful figures have followed the family from the future, determined to stop them before things can be changed. The loyalties and skills of the members of Maddigan's Fantasia, and those of Garland in particular, are put to the test as they meet with constant opposition in their quest to bring light back to Solis, and ensure a better future for their world.
Maddigan's Fantasia is a long book, and one that takes some time to find a tight focus. For the first 280 pages or so, there is a very episodic feel to the story as the settlement travels from settlement to settlement, finding a different thing wrong in each one. These encounters, although not unenjoyable reading in themselves, felt like discrete short stories that didn't contribute much to the larger story arc, which kept me from being deeply involved in the book.
Fortunately for me, Mahy then changes pace, and the tension mounts as the Fantasia races to get the converter home, while fending off the bad guys from the future and their sinister overlord's attempts to manipulate events and people in the present. The journey becomes a more coherent and exciting story, and Garland comes into her own as a strong and plucky heroine, dealing simultaneously with the loss of her father and the external dangers that beset the Fantasia.
Time-travel-wise, though, Maddigan's Fantasia doesn't deliver. It would not be hard to eliminate the time travel element completely, and still have much the same story. The future world characters--bad guy who wants absolute power and the two henchmen he's sent back in time, good guys trying to stop him--could easily be people in Garland's present. The cultural disconnect that adds interest to so many time travel books is barely mentioned. One time-travel episode, in which Garland is taken to her own past, is interesting enough, but is not immediately relevant to the larger story (although it is a chance for Garland's character to develop). It didn't have to be there, and it felt a bit forced.
Although this book never worked for me as a time travel story, the Fantasia itself, weaving the post-apocalyptic world together with the wonders it offers, is a lovely creation, and the reader with the patience to accept that the story takes time to really gather momentum might well enjoy Garland's adventures very much.