One thing that could never be said about "Owl Service" is that it is like every other fantasy book. Because it's not. Alan Garner skillfully weaves Welsh mythology with a suspenseful, almost horrifying story about ancient power reaching to the modern day.
Something is scratching through Alison's ceiling, when she is sick with a stomachache. She and the cook's son Gwyn venture up into the loft, and there find a heap of strangely patterned plates. At first glance, the pattern appears to be an abstract floral; upon closer examination, Alison finds that when she traces around the pattern on pieces of paper, that they form tiny paper owls. Alison's brother Roger is inclined to be dismissive, but Gwyn isn't so sure.
For some reason, discovery sends Gwyn's mother into a near-crazed frenzy, and attracts the attention of the old handyman, Huw. Huw tells Gwyn a tragic old story -- one that is connected to Alison's strange behavior. When their mothers forbid them to speak to one another, Huw reveals his true nature. To save Alison from repeating the cycle, Gwyn learns that he must discover things about his own past...
Like the previous two children's books by Alan Garner, this is about modern-day children swept up in mythical forces, but while the creatures and people of "Weirdstone" and "Moon" were solid and easily-defined, here everything is misted and ghostly. So much so that the climax, while exquisitely written, is very hard to decipher, and which will leave readers feeling deeply unsatisfied. Just what happened?
Garner takes a relatively obscure myth and spins up a strange tale around it. The writing matches that. Garner's is an exquisitely atmospheric style: the scenes of magic are otherworldly, as is any scene where Alison cuts out the owls, which becomes more sinister as the reason why becomes clear. There are a few scenes where the atmosphere is wholly human, such as the scene where Gwyn's mother leaves him win the rain without caring what happens to him.
Gwyn is our Charlie Brown hero -- he's the boy next door, an ordinary kid with an embittered mother. Alison's personality is a little less defined, since she spends the story being possessed by the magic. We don't get to see much of the real Alison. And it's not clear Roger is in the story, since he contributes nothing except a series of obnoxious comments and insinuations. Huw is clearly a mystery from the beginning, that is slowly unravelled to reveal his tragic ancestry and past.
While flawed by some useless characters, "The Owl Service" is a beautifully written book. If only Garner had thought up a climax to match the exquisite buildup.