Playing with themes from Frances Hodgson Burnett's Little Lord Fauntleroy and adding exotic action in the style of RLStevenson, Ibbotson has produced a spell-binding 300-page novel that captures attention from the opening chapter.
Maia, an orphan, is sent away in 1910 to an outpost on the Amazon with a governess, Miss Minton, who is no less formidable than Mrs Jones in Peter Dickinson's Tulku but more politely spoken. The Carters, in whose care Maia has been placed, are a grim lot. Mrs Carter, obsessed with keeping all fors of native life out of her house, has a larder filled with insecticides. Mr Carter collects glass eyes. Their twins, Gwendolyn and Beatrice, look sweet but play the roles of spiteful and stupid Ugly Sisters.
Two other orphans - Clovis, a child actor whom Maia befriends on the voyage across the Atlantic, and Finn, a reluctant mixed-blood heir to a country estate - are pivotal to a plot that requires secrecy and subterfuge on the part of the characters and substantial ingenuity from the author.
There are many points at which a book of this type might have faltered. But the result is a richly satisfying novel for Year 4 and above that will expand the horizons of its readers, giving them a hunger for new experiences on their own journey through life.