Rescuing the Past
The Iona Conspiracy, the sequel to Dr. Gary Gregg’s novel The Sporran, is a gripping tale which follows the adventures of thirteen-year-old Jacob Boyd. In the previous book, Jacob came to possess an ancient Scottish sporran (a kind of pouch worn with traditional Scottish dress) with magic powers and accepted the role of a Bearer in the mysterious order of the Sporrai. This order, as explained to Jacob by his teacher Ramos Kirk, who first appears in this new volume, “exists to pass on the knowledge and wisdom and sense of wonder that once animated more of us than we can count as allies in this fallen world of ours.”
The adventure begins when Jacob, his best friends Jenny and Will, and his devoted dragon-pug, Mr. Nibbles, find themselves at a summer program at Iona Academy, a prestigious school in Kentucky rooted in Scottish traditions. After a few weeks of classes in Scottish history, sword fighting, and other studies, the school’s headmistress, Abigail Witherspoon, suddenly disappears. Finnius Creech, the assistant headmaster, takes over. Creech rids the school of all of its traditions and “outdated” classes, saying that “there is no room in our world for the dead arm of the past.” Iona is stripped of its traditions under the banners of change and progress—which turn out to make for a very ugly campus. Readers who have experienced liberal teachers more concerned with their own innovations will be familiar with this “educational revolution” in schooling at the cost of conveying to students more substantive learning. Change is not always progress, as this story conveys.
The situation on campus worsens when a Dr. Lilith Frost arrives at Iona to conduct scientific experiments. She tries to create mythical creatures using science, and attempts to get information from a prisoner about Jacob’s sporran. Her actions suggest the dangers of unethical scientific experimentation. It falls to Jacob to save the school from those who have taken it over to use for their own unscrupulous ends.
In the course of the story, Jacob travels to the real island of Iona in Scotland on the back of his dragon-pug to save his old friend and mentor, Professor von Niblick. There he discovers some of the secrets of the medieval Book of Kells, and only through courage and humility he is able to understand an ancient puzzle in a subterranean chapel. He also has to guard his sporran from those who would use it for evil. In so doing, he comes to play a crucial part in protecting the wisdom and cultural artifacts of the Sporrai throughout the centuries. He becomes a true conservator. Dr. Gregg’s appreciation for Scottish history is evident in the book. He effectively taps his historical learning throughout the narrative as Scottish places and people are woven creatively into the tale.
Readers of Russell Kirk will take interest in the character of Ramos Kirk. Dean of Faculty at Iona Academy, Professor Kirk upholds the standards of the school when Mr. Creech takes over and is a friend to the young hero of the story. Besides the character modeled after him, there are several other allusions to Kirk in the book. For instance, readers of Kirk’s Old House of Fear will recognize the name of the Scottish isle of Carnglass, which is where Jacob takes refuge with Professor von Niblick.
Suspenseful and engrossing, The Iona Conspiracy‘s plot is fast-paced and refreshingly unpredictable. Given this pace, the dialogue between characters can be slightly awkward on occasion, but this is overcome by the intricate plot and fluid writing of the author. The Iona Conspiracy is a welcome addition to the genre of contemporary young people’s fiction, although readers of any age will enjoy it. It will appeal to those who like works of fantasy, history, and adventure, and it also lends itself well to reading aloud to a family. One aspect that sets it apart from some contemporary fiction is that Jacob must make decisions to prove himself worthy that contribute to the moral strength of his character and that of the entire story. The power of the moral imagination is evident in this rich story.
As The Iona Conspiracy is Book III of the Remnant Chronicles, readers of the series will eagerly anticipate the next installment.
Isabel A. Nelson is a sophomore at Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua, N.H.
Posted: February 27, 2011
On What Knowledge Pertains To
James V. Schall, S.J.