I am very disappointed in this audiobook. I loved the beginning – so much. James Langton was charming as a reader. No, really – charming. He read in a neutral, British-flavored voice, which perfectly set off the tones and accents he used for the characters, each distinctive and enjoyable. I didn’t realize that the physical book is illustrated; perhaps the characterizations balance that loss. (I hate discovering that books I’ve gotten in audio are illustrated. It’s such a cheat.)
I enjoyed the heck out of how the story began. The Imaginarium Geographica (is that correct Latin? It doesn’t feel right) allows for cameos by characters like Captain Nemo; it recalled [book:Silverlock] more than the other similarly-themed novella I listened to earlier this year, Legendarium. Unlike the latter, this did not aim primarily for humor (and aim low at that), and I did not loathe the characters (until I found out who they were supposed to be). Everything in the opening chapters clicked in all kinds of ways. Nice idea, nice storytelling, just lots of fun. The reveal of the other identity of the Green Knight is lovely. The repeated motif of characters waving farewell as the heroes move on to the next stage of their adventure was nice. I loved some bits:
“What’s that [constellation], there?” asked Charles, pointing. “The line that looks like Orion’s Belt?”
“It’s Orion’s Belt,” said Artus.
“Ah,” said Charles.
“A smile began to Cheshire over his face” – nice wordplay.
“I say we just kill him and spare ourselves the trouble of watching our backs.”
“Seconded,” said Charles.
“Kind of bloodthirsty, don’t you think, Charles?” said John.
“I’m an editor,” said Charles. “I have to make decisions like that all the time.”
I love that.
It was because of stuff like that there that I had five stars dancing in my head for several chapters.
And yet even toward the beginning I questioned some things. Three young men find themselves on a dragon-prowed ship sailing out of London and this world in 1917, and are stunned to discover that the ship’s crew is made up of fauns. So agile and sure-footed, the captain of the ship (Aven) says. But… perhaps it’s apocryphal that sailor often went barefoot so as not to slip? The author explains that, like mountain goats, the fauns are remarkably nimble even in the midst of a storm … I don’t know. Maybe cloven hooves have better traction, even on water-slicked wooden decking.
And then the ship is captured, and all the fauns taken prisoner, and it is known that their status will be going from “crew” to “entrée” – and our heroes barely twitch. This is the first time it becomes clear that there are “lesser races” in this world, and I found that distinctly uncomfortable.
Something else I thought odd… or, rather, distasteful… Okay. In a PBS piece on Harper Lee, Oprah Winfrey talks about how astounding it was that “little Harper Lee” – with accompanying hand gesture indicating diminutiveness – had the courage to tackle Southern racism in the midst of the fight for civil rights. I’ll talk about Harper Lee, at length and adoringly, elsewhere; I likely won’t talk about Oprah anywhere ever again, and not just because she ticked me off here by seeming to equate lack of height with lack of courage. This is relevant, even apart from the fact that I’m short, because here are a couple of remarks from Here, There Be Dragons: “Their short stature made them rather disagreeable”. The enmity between elves and dwarves? “It’s a height thing”. I think there was more – and it’s particularly irritating in that this is a book aimed at young adults, many of whom aren’t very tall, after all.
I probably bring up Chekhov and his gun more often than I ought, but that’s because it’s a kind of big obvious thing, and when it’s missed it leaves a vague feeling of incompleteness. This time the gun was a guy. Very early on, Captain Aven is hissing and spitting about a Caretaker called Jamie who abandoned the Imagninarium for “playacting in Kensington Gardens”, which in light of the fact that 99.99% of Caretakers named were renowned authors made me think of J.M. Barrie. I had two guesses up in the air: Barrie, or – given the sheer venom from Aven – kin; her brother, perhaps. At the end it was revealed at last that it was indeed Barrie … and that was it. I see now that there are several other books in this series; maybe Jamie shows up in one of those. But there should have been something in here, because good grief was he ever given a dramatic build-up. I’ve never heard anything about him to make me expect it: why was he such a rebel? I guess I’ll never know.
When I began to roll my eyes, those five stars I envisioned near the beginning began to fade, one by one. The characters simply had no sense. Example: A door left open with disastrous consequences is … still left open even after the disastrous consequences.
Our hero John stresses about how terrible a student he was, because he did not take his apprenticeship as a Caretaker seriously, not seeing much point in studying dead languages when there was a war on and he was suffering from shell shock. Why did he never see much point? Because he was never told why it was important. It was even worse than all those romances where the two main characters go through hell simply because they don’t talk to each other. If someone had simply told John a little bit of what was going on … there would be no book.
And I will very much come back to that “terrible student” thing.
That aimed-at-young-adults thing I mentioned earlier became more and more obvious the further I got. There was a lightness of tone at what were to me surprising moments which I can only attribute to the intended reading level. There aren’t really any teeth to the book. It begins with a murder, and with a young man on leave from WWI trying to cope with shell shock, so as events spun out I expected there to be patches of grim reality. And – spoiler alert – there really weren’t. Well, one: a secondary character died, and it was because of a rather arrogant mistake made by one of the primary characters. But it’s okay, because the young man whose fault it was redeems himself spectacularly. Based on memories of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain I rather thought that the redemption would involve the young man losing, or at least risking losing, his life, but no. And then it was revealed that that one death was the single solitary “good guy” casualty in the big battle, although the description made it sound like a bloodbath.
There was one bit that made one eyebrow Spock up: our heroes are standing in front of a magical door with no apparent way in, but bordered by carving.
“It says, basically, ‘declare allegiance and be welcomed’.”
“Well, doesn’t it perhaps mean that the magic word that opens the door is ‘allegiance’,” said Jack, “in Elvish?”
“That’s a stupid idea,” said John. “Then anyone who spoke Elvish could get in.”
Have I mentioned how important The Lord of the Rings is to me?
I’ll come back to that, too.
As I listened to that bit, I see-sawed between “Heh, cute” and “Come here and I will slap you so hard you’ll see all the stars I’m not giving your book”. Since I’m bent on spoilerizing this book, I will go ahead and say that towards the end, as Jack and John and Charles were about to sign their names in the endpapers of the book, I made a note to the effect that Jack had bloody well better not be J.R.R. Tolkien. Well, he wasn’t. He was C.S. Lewis. (I didn’t remember that Lewis was called Jack.)
John was Tolkien.
(For some reason I did have a memory that he was called Jack.) From biography.com: he got a “first-class degree at Exeter College, specializing in Anglo-Saxon and Germanic languages and classic literature.” I could be wrong, but that doesn’t sound like “terrible student” to me.
And here comes another reference to another book I listened to recently: The Stress of Her Regard. In that book, Byron and Shelley and Keats are characters, and the concept of the novel is that all of the blaze of genius in these three poets is down not to inborn talent, but … vampires. I found that as offensive and nauseating as I find the “glover’s son couldn’t have written Shakespeare” thing, and even the “clearly aliens built everything spectacular” thing. The more I think about it the more annoyed I am by the use of Tolkien as a character in this book (and Lewis) (and in fact, now I come to think about it, every other author mentioned), not only because these portrayals of Tolkien and Lewis were far from flattering (slanderous, if anything), but because it ends on a note of “hey, what a great idea, I’m going to transcribe accounts of my adventures in the guise of fantasies – like other Caretakers who became famous authors doing so!”