The Short Version: Jennifer Strange has saved the last dragon and tamed a quarkbeast – and now she’s just trying to go on a date. But after a relatively normal assignment for Kazam brings her face to face with the Mighty Shandar himself, she must set off into the Cambrian Empire to a place where no one has ever returned in search of a mystical jewel called The Eye of Zoltar. If she fails, her dragon friends will be killed – and something else seems to be going on behind the scenes, too, that she can’t put her finger on.
The Review: When Jasper Fforde first began his YA series, they provided pleasant diversions but never totally satisfied. What about the third Nursery Crime book? The other Shades of Grey stories? The final Thursday Next book?! The man’s imagination had taken a sharp turn for the youthful and while his humor and heart were still present, it just wasn’t quite the same. But when the The Eye of Zoltar came in at nearly twice the length of the previous Chronicles of Kazam, cautious excitement began to creep in. Plus, some Fforde is better than no Fforde.
At this point, readers are undoubtedly familiar with Jennifer Strange and her quirky life as the de-facto head of Kazam – a group of magicians in (yet another Ffordian) an alternate universe Britain that has become the “UnUnited Kingdoms”, where magic runs rampant but has been dying out. Jennifer is largely part of the reason that it is returning to power in the UnUK, making her a celebrity of sorts by the age of 16. And Fforde doesn’t take too much time to remind his readers of the background – reintroducing certain concepts through the introductory narration of Ms. Strange and giving us an early adventure with some of the gang at Kazam that feels pretty much self-contained but also allows the re-establishment of the world without ever making it seem like the author is treading water. As a result, when Shandar appears and gets up in Jennifer’s face, the reader is ready to hit the ground running with this newest adventure.
This is important, too, because said newest adventure takes our heroine away from the world we’ve come to know and puts her on a quest into places unknown (except it’s not a quest because they’d have to get permission and deal with particular strictures of questing law, so they’re just on a search and bending the rules a bit). And while our attention is distracted by this quest, Fforde is actually spending most of his time setting up the supposedly-final installment of the Chronicles – and even though readers will probably catch him doing it, it’s a delight to watch him get away with it. His understanding of how stories work and his unparalleled ability to play with metafictional devices and rules is on full display here. It’s a joy to see and The Chronicles have become a worthy addition to Fforde’s pantheon of imagination.
But where do they go? This book functions almost as the first half of a longer novel (which may be the case, as this was originally only meant to be a trilogy), taking our heroine out of the usual setting and then returning her just in time for Big Things to Have Happened. The stage is set for a grander confrontation and things take a far darker turn than anyone could’ve expected from a children’s novel – especially after the relatively happy-go-lucky tone of the first two books. It isn’t that the novel suffers from turning out to be mostly setup for the next book – if you removed the chapter or two at the end, things would stand alone delightfully – but rather that it feels like the tone has shifted in a way. The typeface might be larger and the humor a bit more PG but perhaps what made this book more distinctly enjoyable than its predecessors is the fact that some of the Nextian seriousness crept in. Jennifer loses things and people – in fact, so do most of the characters. The Princess, for example, goes through a traditional growing up plot arc (that’s not a spoiler, Fforde pretty much spells it out in the opening chapters) but the end of the adventure turns that into something larger. She doesn’t just grow up but she must be a grown up – all of them must, despite still just being kids. It’s kind of heady stuff. In a good way.
Rating: 4 out of 5. I do, I’ll admit, miss the adult humor of Fforde’s other novels – his wit, while still completely applicable to the younger set, is too good to get full enjoyment from seeing it with a tip on the blade. But he is perhaps the most consistently dazzling writer of intelligent humorous metanarrative fiction – a rapidly growing subset of authors, I assure you. More than anything, he brings heart to his stories and the Chronicles of Kazam, while they don’t have the brio of the Thursday Next books, might inspire kids to read and write more inventively. I hope that they do – and I can’t wait for the next one (although I can’t wait for Dark Reading Matter more).