The Carnegie Medal Winning Modern Classic
Alone in a world of darkness and ice, a shaman and a prince long for an end to loneliness.
In the darkest hour of a freezing Midwinter, a night-walking witch begs a slave-woman to give away her new-born baby.
The witch carries off the baby in her house on chicken legs. She names her Chingis and teacher her the Three Magics.
Chingis grows into such a powerful witch that she rouses the jealousy of Kuzma, the bear-shaman.
The Czar of this cold realm fears his new-born son, Safa, will out-do him, and so imprisons the baby at the top of a tall tower, to live and die there without ever glimpsing the real world.
Loneliness and confinement drive him half-mad until Chingis hears the crying of his trapped spirit and frees him.
But now their enemies unite against them, with steel and deadly magic.
Chingis and Safa's fight for freedom will take them even through the Ghost World Gate into the Land of the Dead.
If you love timeless, atmospheric tales of fierce magic, then you'll love this Carnegie winning classic.
Suitable for readers of 9 to teenage.
"Whenever you poke your nose round the door, pack courage, and leave fear at home."
The Ghost Drum is a richly emotional and lavishly written tale of love and learning and the tyranny that seeks their deaths. In a cold northern land, from a monstrous palace where speech is forbidden and sunlight filtered through stone, rules a Czar who won his crown by killing his brothers and sisters.
He owned every animal, wild or tame, alive or dead; and he owned every flower, every shoot, whether it grew… in a field, in a garden, a window-box, a pot or a crack in a wall… He owned the air in the lungs of his people. He owned the people.
In this oppressed country, two women give birth. One is the wife of he Czar, who keeps her locked up in a tower of the palace; her son is born into captivity and she dies. The other, a slave-woman, entrusts her infant daughter to a female shaman. The narrative switches back and forth from Chingis, the girl-apprentice, mastering the magic of herbs, spoken words, writing and music, to the deprived Czarevich Safa, who knows only the windowless tower room, the pictures on the stove tiles and the stories his nurse tells him. Chingis travels about in the shaman’s magical hut on its long chicken’s legs, and roams freely in the spirit-world; Safa’s hatred of his confinement and desire to go beyond the tower door increase as he grows, reaching a pitch of near-insanity.
That Chingis will rescue Safa is obviously destiny; but Price frees the story from the conventions of fairy-tale romance and gives it an unusual intensity. Safa’s nurse is beheaded by the Czar and Chingis’ foster-mother chooses her own death, so that both young people are left alone, although Safa is desperately lonely, while Chingis is contentedly occupied. Chingis is guided by the ceaseless cries of Safa’s spirit to the tower room, which is as foul and disordered as its occupant’s wits have become. She leads him out of the imprisoning palace and into the world, whose variety shocks and delights him. Chingis makes Safa her apprentice, but realises he is ‘unteachable’ and accepts it. She learns, however, from his happy babblings, and the two live together harmoniously in the magic hut.
Opposed to them are Kuzma, a wily wizard who misuses his powers for his own ends, and Safa’s aunt, the Czaritsa Margaretta, devious and insecure, who pulls off a military coup after Safa’s father dies. They are natural allies against the rightful Czar and Chingis’s white magic, and their strategy meeting is a child’s primer of realpolitik: “I don’t lend my soldiers as a common housewife lends flour,” said Margaretta. “I must know that you will succeed.”
From here on, the plot becomes as complicated as Kuzma’s scheme to entrap Chingis and Safa, with minor characters jostling each other and blizzards of vaguely Symbolist imagery; it also turns gory. Chingis is killed, but comes back as a polar bear and confronts Margaretta just as she is going to Safa’s execution, weeping insincere tears. Cornered by the bear, the Czaritsa offers it land, fortune, titles, one of her subjects every day for dinner, if only it will let her live. She promises to appoint an Imperial Commission to investigate Safa’s arrest and detention, and determine who was responsible (she was). She grows more desperate: “Did the bear want a fellowship at a University? Could she bribe it with a place in the Church?” But the bear makes the proper response to a dictator: it devours her and spits out her crown.
Everyone adjourns to the spirit-world and is appropriately reborn. What happens to the Czardom? The rich and the powerful go to war to decide who will be the next Czar, and the rest acquiesce in the outcome. This is adult fiction for eleven or twelve year olds.
The Kirkus Review 15th May 1987
Elements of myth, Slavic folklore and original fantasy are skilfully mixed with poetic imagery to create a truly stunning and original work of the imagination.
A scholar cat tells the story, interweaving the tales of Chingis, child of a slave woman, raised by a witch to be a Woman of Power; Safa, the Czar’s son, locked in a tower room from birth because his father and aunt fear he’ll steal the throne; and the forces of evil: the Czar, the Czaritsa and Kuzma, a very powerful shaman who fears the growing talents of Chingis. When Chingis rescues Safa, Kuzma allies himself to the Czaritsa Margaretta, who has ascended the throne at her brother’s death. He murders Chingis and imprisons Safa. Chingis, however, finds a way to escape from the ghost world to destroy Kuzma. The powerful climax places her in the palace of the Czars, where she, in the body of Kuzma, engages in an epic and bloody struggle with Margaretta. The outcome of their battle is both surprising and satisfying, as is an epilogue occurring 500 years later.
Price, familiar to American readers for The Devil’s Piper, written 11 years ago when she was 16, has grown into a hypnotic storyteller who laces her work with delicate cynicism. She uses vivid imagery, as well as effect occasionally uncompromising in their brutality. Never less than clear and accessible, her story flows, told by a master. A find for lovers of folklore and fantasy.
Booklist 15/09/1987 'I C'
In this highly original, multidimensional tale a cat narrates the stories of several characters and describes how their lives converge for both good and evil. Among the memorable characters are Chingis, the slave baby raised by a witch to be the greatest of shamans: Safa, kept by his father, the Czar, in a small, dome-shaped room until Chingis hears his cries and rescues him; Marien, the nurse, whose efforts to save Safa lead to her death; and Margaretta, the Czar’s sister, who knows her own future will only be secure when Safa is dead. Price provides an icy, intense setting for her fantasy, which haunts almost as much as her unique characters. When she describes how, “the sky stars glitter in their darkness, and the snow-stars glisten in their whiteness, and between the two there hangs a shivering curtain of cold twilight,” readers will know they are in the palm of a writer whose magical eye for detail matches her ability to draw a story sweeping in scope.
By Mary Cutler
‘A shaman’s power is all words and music,’ writes Susan Price in The Ghost Drum. ‘If she cannot be heard her power is niggling.’ Fortunately Ms Price can be heard, true and clear in this powerful and musical story placed in the world of Northern, particularly Russian myths and folk-tales, but strongly and fiercely original. We seem to be re-discovering and re-appreciating the skills of the story-teller; this is that most potent of stories, a winter’s tale, full of darkness, magic and power, set in a faraway Czardom, where the winter is ‘a cold half-year of darkness’, taking the most universal of themes as the forces of good face the realities of evil: ‘If the world were well rid of every Czar, then the most greedy, the most cruel, and the least truthful of those left would call themselves Czar – and the rest would let them do it. But we need not love Czars, and we need not become them.’
I’m giving you the moral because I don’t want to give away the story, which is compelling. A spell is indeed cast over the reader: ‘Words can alter sight and hearing, taste, touch and smell. Used with a higher skill they can make our senses clearer.’ Susan Price is happily blessed with this higher skill; it is the clarity of her prose which particularly impresses. It is difficult for an individual to attempt a form sharpened and clarified by generations of story tellers – a folk tale brightens with use and all the extraneous material wears away over the years. There is nothing out of place in The Ghost Drum: as in a spell every word counts: ‘The alphabet in the book spells out words you can say, but the alphabet in the drum spells out things that can never be said.’ The reverberations of this new-minted myth continue to echo after the story’s finished.
Now, I'm not saying Philip Pullman has read this, or was overly influenced or anything, but the trio of "Ghost" books, set in a vaguely Imperial Russia
and mythological underworlds, is one of the most astonishing things I have ever read and reminds me not a little of the Northern Lights trilogy.
Another reviewer felt it rather dark for the age it is aimed at. Perhaps, but no more so than Northern Lights and the His Dark Materials trilogy. Some of the folk-lore, much of the icy scenery that forms an important part in the Ghost Drum turns up in Northern Lights. It's coincidental, but I think anyone who enjoyed Pullman's books will love this.
The rich, sparce, beautiful language, the twists of plot and the feisty characters are all interlaced with the traditional Russian story-telling device of a learned cat (as in Pushkin's "Russlan & Ludmilla poem).
I loved it -- and the sequels, for once, did not disappoint. I cannot understand why this isn't more famous, has not been filmed, raved about, discussed and celebrated. Read it and be swept away into a dark, thrilling,cold and timeless world of stories and storytelling. You won't want it to end. SUPERB!
Five star Amazon review by 'Lionheart'
I read The Ghost Drum when I was 11 and it is, without a doubt, one of my favourite books of all time. The story expertly subverts classic
fairytale clichés -- an imprisoned prince is rescued from the clutches of an evil princess by a good witch -- and cleverly references Slavic, particularly Russian, myth and legend. Witches
own houses that move on chicken legs, reminiscent of the Baba Yaga tales, and cats tell stories and sing songs.
As other reviewers have said, it is incredibly dark in places and I admit that as a child, I was quite shocked at some of the violence. However, this is by no means a criticism, and cursory look at the majority of fairytales will reveal that children's stories are not free from bloodshed.
The prose beautifully written and some of the images and ideas in the story haunted me for some time after finishing. But above all, Susan Price tells a good yarn, and it is a gripping adventure from start to end. My one complaint is that it is inexplicably out of print, and therefore not that easy to find.
I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who loves a good story, young or old.
5 star Amazon review by mariatom
The narrator of this trilogy is a learned cat on a golden chain and we are at once in the world of long dark winters and Slavic myth. The witches' houses run on
chicken legs or cats' paws but their inhabitants are not as instantly terrifying as the iron- toothed Baba Yaga of Ransome's Old Peter's Russian Tales. They are old and wise and various.
Their magics are the powers of words and music. They must be learned. At the beginning of the story it is the deepest midwinter night and a slave-woman, huddled close to the big communal
stove, has given birth to a baby girl. An old witch is nearing the end of her three hundred year life. She needs an apprentice and has come to take the child.
Now the horror of the slave-mother's situation becomes apparent. She would like her baby to have a better life but she is afraid. "My baby doesn't belong to me. I am a slave, her father is a slave, and she and we belong to Czar Guidon. If I gave you the baby, we should be whipped for giving away our master's property." This modern fairy-story is about power. The witches and shamans have power but theirs is a power that has been worked for and learned and must be exercised within rules. The Czars and Czaritsas, however, are human and ignorant and are finally driven mad by their own absolutism- - though not before they have caused untold suffering and death along the way.
The Ghost Drum is beautifully written using a starkly simple vocabulary. "Far overhead the sky-stars glisten white, bright, in their darkness; underfoot the snow-stars glitter white in whiteness. Between the sky-stars and the snow-stars hangs a shivering, milky curtain of twilight." Many of the most telling moments use this simplicity to shocking effect. "Swiftly she was brought into the dazzling light of a small courtyard and there -- when the soldiers' eyes had got used to the light -- they cut off her head." When the Czaritsa Margaretta succumbs to paranoia she sees the ghosts of her naked and starving people in every palace mirror. Naturally she has all the mirrors smashed and then ground into powder. This then is "poured into jars and put away in the palace storerooms for sprinkling on the food of her enemies. Though a Czaritza, she was a thoughtful and thrifty housewife."
Fairy stories have traditionally given a voice to the oppressed. The Ghost Drum can be read as an exotic and magical story from a faraway land and simultaneously relished as a satire on the madness of dictators. It's timeless.
5-star Amazon review by Mrs J. Jones