The Short Version: Eric Bear is living a happy life – he’s got a great job, a beautiful wife, and he’s left the remnants of his shady past behind him. Or so he thinks. A surprise visit from his old employer with a threat to his wife sends him back into the shady life he thought he’d left behind – and onto a journey that will shake the very foundations of Mollisan Town.
The Review: Goddamn, this is refreshingly original. First up: the characters are all stuffed animals. Eric Bear, Tom-Tom Crow, Snake Marek – you can figure it out pretty quickly. You’ve got to let your imagination run loose on this one, otherwise you’ll find the conceit too frustrating. I was worried about it, to be honest… but then I started to imagine the book as a stop-motion film. Something about it actually demands that such a film be made, preferably by Aardman. But I don’t want to go down that particular rabbit hole.
The story is a relatively simple one – one that stretches back to the classic noir of Chandler, really. A mixed-up youth grows up to become respectable but gets pulled back into the underworld when someone near him is threatened. From there, the book becomes a mix of Ocean’s Eleven and classic noir – the sequence where Eric goes and recruits his old ‘team’ was especially reminiscent of the former. There are some deeper elements too: a psychological subplot that recalls a bit of Fight Club and a bit of The Prestige. I started to put it together slightly ahead of the book – but then Davys threw a curve at me that I didn’t see coming (I was neglecting the noir side of the story) and suddenly the whole thing was not quite what I had predicted. And I loved that. Damn, I love being surprised like that – it’s nice to be knocked down a peg from thinking I’m smarter than the author.
My only quibbles with the book are two in number: 1) the resolution is a bit abrupt (I have this problem with many noir stories) and 2) there’s a slight lack of detail towards the latter half of the novel. And by detail I mean… that fine shading, that world-building that you need in order to sustain such a strange and quirky universe. The first half of the book does a great job at setting up Mollisan Town without giving away any mysteries and the resolution doesn’t answer any of the major questions you’re going to have (like: “how did this world come into being?” or “what’s beyond the impenetrable forest?”) – but the build-up and the climax sacrifice a bit of detail in order to keep the story lean. This isn’t so much a problem, I don’t think – but the ending happens and BAM that’s it. The name is crossed off the list and that’s basically that. There’s no follow-up on what happens to the characters but in such a way that you’re not expecting it to come in a sequel. The caper over, the players are left in suspended animation right where we last saw them. I think this is a symptom of the entire genre and I’m not sure what to do about it – and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to be left wanting more. I’m just saying that I did, in fact, want more.
The world itself is fantastic, though. Colored streets, stuffed animals – they don’t bleed, they just leak stuffing, a sense of Sin City-esque lawlessness sitting just under the surface. Four districts, each relatively clearly defined and each getting its own novel. Not that this novel is particularly about Amberville. In fact, it’s equally set in Yok or racing about town as far as I could tell. And the characters are all so intriguing simply because they are stuffed animals: they’re automatically more interesting than they would be if they were humans. As humans, we understand them. They’re what we know them to be. But as stuffed animals… a drugged out gay gazelle is far more interesting for being just that one step removed from humanity. It’s fascinating, truly, to see how quickly something becomes foreign simply by replacing what we’re intimately familiar with (a human being). The allegory is there, certainly: we can look at this society Davys has created and see our own but from an interesting remove. But the story itself surpasses the allegory and makes for a damn fun time.
Rating: 5 out of 5. A fast read and a fun one. I’m intrigued by the world that has been created and I want to see how well it holds up in the following tales. The planned quartet is set to finish up this summer and I’m eagerly anticipating the next read: Lanceheim. Got a fair number of things to get through before then but I’m glad to find another winner out of the pile of books I looted from the Borders (RIP) that closed in my hometown. I might not have picked this book up otherwise – it would’ve remained an intriguing but not quite purchase-worthy read. And that would’ve been disappointing, because I wouldn’t have discovered the wonderfully unique and lovely world of Mollisan Town.