The Short Version: Jennifer Strange, formerly Last Dragonslayer and still foundling/temporary head of Kazam, has made a few enemies. As she and the rag-tag team of wizards at Kazam find themselves facing down stacked odds in an unfair wizarding contest, she’s also trying to deal with a rogue Quarkbeast, a missing boss, a corporate hostile takeover, and a young wizard who won’t stop trying to ask her out. It can be a little trying.
The Review: Maybe it was all the world-building that needed to be done (first book of a series and all), but Quarkbeast feels much more unified and altogether a stronger book than The Last Dragonslayer. It still adds new pieces of the puzzle to this alternate universe where magic is what powers things in place of electricity (or, in competition with – it’s a little unclear) – but it also doesn’t need to reintroduce any elements but rather just trundle forward.
(ed. note – I’ve tried to remain as spoiler-free as possible, but I also don’t really count this as an advance review since half the world has had the book on its shelves for some time now. That said, I’ll do my best to be vague, since the majority of you potential readers likely haven’t felt the urge to order it from the Book Depository or Amazon.co.uk)
As a result, we get a little more organic development of characters and relationships – including a truly lovely development, romantically, that feels so perfect and unforced that I broke out into a huge grin when it happened. On the flipside, there’s also quite a bit of development regarding enemies (or, at least, complicated not-friendly relationships) – including some savvy maneuvering on all sides that might be a bit much for younger readers to fully grasp. Oh, they’ll get the basics of it – but the political machinations and the ease with which allegiances can change is something that might seem… dare I say farfetched? to a younger reader who isn’t so tuned into the world just yet or who hasn’t read The Prince several times, cover to cover. (Or at least once – I might be the only one who rereads that regularly…)
Fforde’s humor seems in stronger supply here, as well – which was a welcome resurgence after seeming to’ve been slightly dampened in the first volume. Oh, don’t worry, parents – it’s still toned-down for the kids (the target audience, after all) but the sense of it being “toned-down”, in a pandering sort of way, is gone and instead it just feels like the sense of humor is instead just actually jokes for younger readers. I’m not explaining it spectacularly well, but one hopes you might get the gist.
Plot-wise, it’s both heavier and lighter than the first novel, at the same time. On the one hand, there’s no distinct major Thing-That-May-Happen like the death of the last dragon – it’s just rebuilding a bridge. That said, we’ve got false imprisonment and high-speed carpet travel and crazy magic stuff going on – so there is quite a bit more happening on several different tracks. I, for one, was a fan of this sort of plot a bit more than the first, more-linear, plot. But that’s a personal taste thing. It also just goes to show how dynamic a writer Fforde can be: he makes rebuilding a bridge a page-turning event.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Definitely an improvement from the already quite satisfactory first book in the series. There are a lot of dominoes set up for the third and final book, due out this fall in the UK and (presumably) next fall in the US – as, I realize, this book isn’t due out in the states til September. I’m excited to see where they fall and what happens in this quirky land where magic is the unit of energy, marzipan an addictive drug, and certain other things (which I’ll leave to you to discover – more fun that way) are just-the-right-amount of off-kilter. You never leave a Fforde book feeling like you haven’t had fun, I’ll certainly say that.