The Short Version: In an alternate version of our world, magic was once prevalent and dragons terrorized the land. But as progress has plodded forward, the dragons were contained and magic began to fade. Nowadays, it’s tough to get magic folks employed – although Jennifer Strange, foundling and current temporary head of Kazam Enterprises, is certainly trying. When a big bolt of prophecy smacks not only Kazam’s precogs but just about everyone else in the world that the last dragon will die soon, Jennifer’s life goes from a little bit hectic to absolutely mad in no time at all.
The Review: I have the utmost affection and love for Jasper Fforde. His magnum opus, the Thursday Next series, may (depending, of course, on how it ends) go down in history as one of the smartest, quirkiest, and best fantasy series of all time. He’s deployed his over-stuffed mind in dystopia as well – and I look forward to his return to that series. But here, he’s taken on an unenviable task: a children’s series.
Setting it in another of his now-trademark alternate universes (with just as many differences between ours and it as you’d hope), he’s managed to find some moderate balance between his more adult leanings and the fact that this book is meant for children. On the one hand, you notice almost right away that everything is simpler. This should not come as a surprise – after all, no matter how precocious a child might be, they are still a child. But once a reader (an adult reader / a reader familiar with Fforde’s other work) eases through the first 50 or so pages, they’ll come to find that same puckish wit at work. A strange soothsayer-esque figure has memorized thousands of random facts and has to repeat them in order to remember them, a foppish pretty-boy musician is also the leading knight of the realm, and there’s a Transient Moose who haunts (if that’s the best term) Zenobia Towers (the headquarters of Kazam and residence of its staff). There’s wacky, funny stuff here and I think we can only try to further encourage children to embrace such frivolity.
However, lest you think the whole book is just such frivolous funtimes, I’d actually argue that this book deals with heavier issues than anything Fforde has written so far. There are several themes here that feel, at times, as though they’re written in capital letters – but that to a younger reader, I bet, would come across without even noticing them: land/nature conservation, corporate greed, the evils of war and politics… there’s a LOT in this book and I was pleasantly surprised to see it all come together so neatly and carefully at the end. An adult reader might brush the idea of saving the dragon aside – much as many adults in the novel brush it aside – but as Jennifer grapples with the very serious decision of whether or not to slay the last dragon, it’s hard not to think about the recent news story that the Western Black Rhino has just been declared extinct. Fforde has some fun with it, including a line about how when arthropods rule the planet, we’ll regret all the shelled seafood we’ve eaten, but there’s a very serious message here and I can only hope young, impressionable readers catch it. Whether or not they catch the subtle political commentary on Wales is another thing and not for me, an American, to speak about.
My only issue with the book is that the ending does present a rather radical change that calls up a condition mentioned only very briefly many pages earlier – and sets it as a pivotal and irreversible event for our heroine. It just felt sudden and abrupt and like one thing too many plopped on Ms. Strange, even in a fantasy novel where anything is possible. It also felt a little too neat, although I know that this is a projected trilogy (I have an ARC of book two sitting at my feet, to be started probably tomorrow) and so I have to assume that there’ll be more challenges to face the folks at Kazam to come.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. It takes a lot, I have to be honest, for me to out and out LOVE a children’s book. For better or for worse, I think too critically and as a result my enjoyment is lessened – even infinitesimally, but lessened nonetheless. While I enjoyed this book, for sure (and it reads in the space of a few hours), it didn’t have the same magic as Mr. Fforde’s other books. Even the weakest entry in the Thursday Next series really clicked with me on an elemental level – and this, on the other hand, seemed just fine. But if a kid reads this book and grows up to read the rest of Mr. Fforde’s work, well, then I suppose I can’t really complain.