Rainbow and Mr. Zed is a fascinating fantasy novel by Welsh author Jenny Nimmo. Sadly out of print, it is the sequel of the equally rare (in Canada, anyway) novel Ultramarine.
Jenny Nimmo’s books are finally getting the attention they deserve throughout the United Kingdom and North America, even in the face of the J.K. Rowling juggernaut. Ms. Nimmo has found considerable success with her Charlie Bone pentalogy, about a young boy with magical powers sent to a school for gifted children by evil aunts out to use him in their longstanding battle with other members of their family. The fifth book in this series, entitled The Hidden King, is due out for release in Canada in the next couple of weeks.
Before anybody says it, the only similarities between this series and Harry Potter is the fact that Charlie Bone has magical powers and is attending a school for children with magical powers. Charlie’s world is set more in our world, and the battles are more personal and complex than those between the Boy Who Lived and the Thatcheresque Voldemort.
Family drama infuses most of Jenny Nimmo’s works, along with themes of reconciliation and healing. Her first published book, The Snow Spider, features a long-lost sister returning from a faerie-like Neverland. The Chestnut Soldier focuses on the healing of a demon who was once a prince turned evil during the tragic fight with his brother over the love of a young woman. The whole Charlie Bone series focuses on a long-running family feud between the magical descendants of the ancient Red King.
Jenny Nimmo’s fourth book, Ultramarine (published 1992), is no different. I reviewed this book over three years ago. It tells the story of Ned and Nell, who believed that their father, Dorion, had been killed in a car crash when Ned was three and Nell six months. They believe that they’ve been in the care of their mother, Leah, ever since, living in an old house on a cliff by a coastal village overlooking the sea. But even with this story, Ned knows that there are unanswered questions. He remembers being in Dorion’s car as it went off the cliffs into the sea. He remembers the sea miraculously sparing them. Both children have a strange relationship with the sea. His shy sister, Nell, claims to hear “the ocean’s footsteps” whenever she’s in her brother’s presence and, one day, Ned witnesses a series of fearsome waves crashing into shore. He sees a tall man, a vision of Neptune, riding in on the tallest of those waves, and walking up onto the beach towards their home.
Ned and Nell’s comfortable family life gets thrown into chaos when Leah marries again, and they’re left in the care of their aunt and grandmother during the honeymoon. Their aunt Rhoda is kind, if distant, but the grandmother becomes a problem, and gradually, the family story comes out. They discover that Dorion wasn’t their father but an uncle, and their true mother, Ultramarine, had loved a man who some thought had kelpie (a water spirit’s) blood. Ultramarine and her husband sailed the world, combatting various environmental disasters, but soon after Ned and Nell were born, Ultramarine drowned. The grandmother blamed the kelpie, and took it out on her grandchildren. Dorion was rescuing them from this abusive situation when his car ran off the cliffs.
Ultramarine is a powerful story where Ned and Nell find their true father, and discover their true names (rather unfortunately, their parents called Nell “Rainbow” and Ned “Albatross”). I like the book because of the emotion behind the story, and the sense of fantasy hovering around the edges. Is their father of Kelpie blood? How did the ocean save Ned and Nell from drowning? And what’s the explanation behind their true father’s mysterious appearance at the crest of a tall wave? It’s never stated for sure.
The fantasy that hovered around the edges of Ultramarine steps out and takes centre stage for the sequel, Rainbow and Mr. Zed. Similarly, in the book Nell steps out of her brother’s shadow. Two years older, she is bitterly disappointed when her father takes her now-teenaged brother on board as part of his environmental crusades. Mark and Leah, her adopted parents, try to cheer her up by sending her on vacation with distant relatives of Leah.
Things get strange when Nell’s distant relatives are invited by the mysterious and rich Mr. Zed to his private island in the Azores. Zed knows far too much about Nell than she is comfortable with, including her true name. His island houses a tower of crystals that speaks to Nell in voices that no one else can hear. And just when things can’t get more weird, she discovers that Zed is holding the ghost of her dead grandfather prisoner.
Although the two books have a very different feel, Rainbow and Mr. Zed follows up on plot points subtly established in Ultramarine. Nell comes into her own, transforming from the shy introvert into a confident young woman who knows she has to face up against the evil Mr. Zed, and resolve a family conflict that has been brewing from before the time her real mother fell into the sea.
Rainbow and Mr. Zed does not have quite the power of Ultramarine’s family story, but this is made up for by the fantasy elements, the mystery of Mr. Zed, and the curious paternal chemistry between Zed and Nell. Seeing Nell come into her own, even though that’s partly at the behest of Zed himself, is a fascinating experience. Mr. Zed is unquestionably evil, but his desire to be a father figure to Nell is not, even though he sees Nell as something to possess. All told, it is a shame that this book is out of print, as it and Ultramarine are interesting books which evoke strong emotion while defying expectations.
Ms. Nimmo’s next works, she tells me, include additional series exploring the Charlie Bone universe. The Charlie Bone series is of interest for all ages, but they are clearly written for the younger readers of the young adult set. I hope more older-themed books are in the offing, as these really fuse a childish sense of wonder with an slightly adult sensibility of storytelling into tales which appeal to me. But whatever the case, Jenny Nimmo’s body of work offers a variety of styles which are sure to appeal, and I am delighted that this author is getting the attention she deserves.