A motley group hesitantly forms a princess-rescuing team and ends up in the last place they expected.
In a post–World War II London still recovering from the Blitz lives a Hag who’s been dislodged from her Dribble (a water meadow where “the damp air is so soft”). At a meeting for Unusual People, three partially-asleep norns assign the Hag, a troll, a self-doubting wizard and a open-hearted orphan to go to “an island as big as England and Scotland and Wales all put together” to rescue Princess Mirella from a flesh-eating ogre. They make the journey, befriend Mirella and take over the ogre’s castle while the text calmly upends conventions and expectations: Mirella’s no damsel-in-distress after all, and the ogre’s more petulant and beleaguered than flesh-hungry. From Hag to ogre to misinformed norns to a previously-human gnu, Ibbotson’s characters are non-glamorous and wistful but all the more human for it. Although soldiers try to kidnap Mirella, the real challenge for these mixed-age protagonists is sadness. The plot never flags or becomes sentimental; humor and gross-out tidbits (medicine made from used foot-washing water) pop up amid delicious turns of phrase (a dead salamander looks “like a very troubled banana which had died in its sleep”). Humility trumps grandness here; meanwhile, the castle becomes a home.
An offbeat, matter-of-fact journey from displacement to an idyllic homestead. (Illustrations not seen.) (Fantasy. 8-11)