The Ropemaker has been one of my favorite fantasy stories for a long time, but I hadn't read it in a while, which meant that it was a perfect candidate for my reading challenge category of "A book you haven't read since high school." I knew that I hadn't read this since high school because I lent my copy to someone and they never gave it back! Don't you have when that happens? But now I have the Kindle version, so all is well--though really, the Kindle version could so with some updating format-wise. Also, did you know that Peter Dickinson was married to Robin McKinley? I didn't!
So. The Ropemaker is the story of Tilja, a girl who lives in the peaceful Valley, which has been cut off from the Empire to the south and the land of the horse tribes to the north for twenty generations due to an act of magic that has been maintained by two families, one of them Tilja's own. The story starts with the slow failure of the magic that protects the Valley, and Tilja ends up going with her grandmother and two members of the other family who protect the magic to find Faheel, the magician who cut the Valley off in the first place, to renew the spells that keep them safe.
This is, at its heart, a simple story, but I love it. I think Dickinson has managed to create one of those worlds that might seem simple on the surface, but you absorb a very deep sense of it while reading. From the Valley to the Empire's capital of Talagh, to the city of the dying in the south, to all of the things and people and customs that Tilja and her companions encounter in between, it's just a very rich world and one that has a lot of cultural characteristics that aren't very commonly seen in fantasy novels. Tilja is also a simple character, but one that I think makes her approachable for a wide variety of readers. She's a little bit of a misfit, being the elder daughter in her family but not being on track to inherit her family's farm because she can't hear the cedars in the forest that protects the Valley. Indeed, Tilja is actually the least magical person, well, ever, and as she goes on her journey she learns to grow into that and use it to her own advantage, turning it into her own sort of special ability. And while we know Tilja isn't a full adult, it's hard to get a handle on exactly how old she is until about two-thirds of the way through the book, which I think allows you to read her as a variety of ages...and they pretty much all work.
Honestly, this book is a lot like The Hobbit to me: a simple, magical journey with what is ultimately a very simple goal, but also a story that is enveloping and beautiful at the same time. (I don't have the same feelings for the main Lord of the Rings trilogy.) I was so happy when this received a sequel, Angel Isle, years after I first read it, and I was very pleased to have an excuse to read it again.