The last book I read, The Arrivals by Melissa Marr, a sex, drug, and violence-filled Fantasy/Western, was a departure from the author’s norm; she usually writes YA. It went so well that I thought: why not try the reverse for my next read?
Jasper Fforde writes clever, literary, comedic mysteries for adults. He’s the author of two bestselling series, Thursday Next (the first book of which is entitled, The Eyre Affair, in which Jane Eyre is kidnapped right off the pages of a Brontë novel) and The Nursery Crime series (the start, The Big Over Easy, postulates that Humpty Dumpty didn’t fall off the wall; he was pushed. Detectives Jack Spratt & Mary Mary investigate, determined to figure out whodunnit). Then, last year, Fforde wrote his first YA novel ever, The Last Dragonslayer.
Author: Jasper Fforde
Publisher: Harcourt Children’s Books
Publication Date: October 02, 2012
Hardcover: 287 pages
Is There a Pooka in This Book?: No.
Pooka Rating: 4 out of 5 Nibbles.
I didn’t pick it up right away. My first (and last) Ffordian foray was probably about a year ago. I read The Big Over Easy. I was pretty excited about it initially. It’s an undeniably hilarious concept. The back cover had a sketch of Humpty’s autopsy, labeling entrance and exit wounds, various bruises & cracks, and even revealing the egg-man’s surprising tattoo:
Unfortunately, I only retained my excitement for the first 50 pages or so. Then, the pacing began to lag and it never picked back up for me. That being said, I’m not really a mystery
person Pooka. They never hold my interest. So maybe it was just the genre and not Fforde.
This month, I found myself in need of a dragon book for the Paranormal Reading Challenge I’m participating in. Each month focuses on a different fantastical creature and September’s is fire-breathing lizards. Fforde’s novel fit the bill, so I thought: why not? Despite my lack of enthusiasm for The Big Over Easy, and despite my coworker’s warnings – she’s the Young Adult Librarian & she told me that she’d heard the book wasn’t very good (she urged me to read Seraphina instead) – I went for it. I think it’s really interesting when an author changes genres or audiences, and I wanted to see how Fforde managed. He managed very, very well.
I quickly fell – and stayed – in love with The Last Dragonslayer.
The story features Jennifer Strange, a fifteen-year-old foundling and indentured servant, who’s filling in for the missing manager at Kazam, an employment agency for magicians. Sadly, though, magic’s been eking out of the world, its power lessening and lessening, so the magicians are no longer wrangling in any big jobs. Flying carpets are being used for piddling pizza delivery, those who can levitate objects are being paid to tow illegally-parked cars, and the most powerful wizards are hired to rewire the electrical systems in houses. Although the link between dragons and magic has never been proved, Jennifer’s quite sure that the decreasing power levels are directly in proportion with the decreasing amount of dragons in the world. When a pre-cog predicts that the last dragon is about the die – and that Jennifer will be at the center of the storm – she worries that magic may be lost forever, and resolves to do as she has always done: try her best to preserve its mystery and majesty. Things get complicated when, just as she’s vowing to protect the last dragon, she’s suddenly appointed to the position of Last Dragonslayer. Jennifer is in a pickle. What’s a girl to do?
What Made the Book Totally Worth Eating:
Fforde’s writing is so quirky and off-the-cuff that it’s hard to explain what I loved, exactly. I think the best way to do it is to provide you with a snapshot of my notebook:
On the left-hand page is written:
– “Comment upon government regulation” (28).
– “The Limping Man sounds terrifying!” (31).
– “PERPETUAL COOKIE TIN!” (complete with a doodle of a chocolate chip cookie)
– “Why can’t you turn a goat into a moped?” (46)
Valid concerns, all.
It says at least as much about me as it does about the text that the largest note on the page is about cookies. It actually took a lot of restraint not to fill up the entire page with exclamation points after reading about a cookie tin that refills itself. I mean, seriously. That’s brilliant. (There’s also a perpetual teapot; I’d much rather a perpetual coffeepot, but that’s the English for you). That was the first clue I had that Fforde was after my heart.
2. Jennifer Strange
After doing some research, I found that one of the most popular complaints against the novel was that it had poorly-developed characters. I don’t really understand that at all. Granted, Fforde doesn’t go about character description in the way we’ve come to expect from Young Adult authors. I don’t know what color Jennifer’s hair is or what color her eyes are. I don’t know if she’s pale or if she has a golden complexion, if she’s short or if she’s tall. But I don’t care much about that, anyway. I didn’t even realize that I didn’t know what she looked like until she puts on a disguise, around page 250. She dons a red wig and I thought, “Hm. I don’t know what color hair she’s covering up.” But what a person looks like doesn’t tell you much about them in the first place. What I do know is that she’s capable and responsible. She’s mature (proven by the fact that she got her license at the tender age of 13; in Hereford, you’re granted a license based on how mature you are, rather than on how many years you’ve lived. That’s why Jennifer has to drive all of the bungling, absent-minded, ancient wizards around. They’re much too distracted by the abstract to pay attention to something concrete, like the road). She’s “principled, as well as fearless,” with “a good heart” (146). She’s against greed and material wealth. Instead, she sides with strange and wild beauty. She manages to fight ageism, classism, and sexism, all without throwing a punch. Her weapons include a level stare, and the ability to follow-through on the promise of a job well done — and okay, later, a giant ruby-laden sword named “Exhorbitus.” But she never duels anyone with it. She lets Quarkbeast do her fighting and intimidating for her. Which brings us to the next point in the novel’s favor…
Having taken the form of a domesticated rabbit myself, I don’t much like the term “pet.” Instead, we’ll say that Quarkbeast is Jennifer’s animal companion. He looks fearsome but is truly anything but. He’s “nine-tenths velociraptor and kitchen blender, and one-tenth labrador” (94-5). He has large, mauve eyes, and instead of molars, he has “molarcizors” (81). Every, single one of his teeth is sharp. When Jennifer feeds him, she gives him his food tin can and all. He chews on spare metal parts and corrugated iron instead of dog bones. When he wags his tail, he’s capable of denting her car (which, by the way, is a bad-ass ride. When her parents abandoned her, it was the one thing they left her with: “a rust-and-orange-but-mostly-rust Volkswagen”  ). I love the ugly little guy. Having had the opportunity to exist in this gorgeous, fluffy body this time around, I’d consider shifting into a Quarkbeast next time. Variety is the spice of life, right?
4. The Parallels Between Wizards and Writers.
Every time Fforde described the wizards, I couldn’t help but think he was describing himself – or maybe writers, in general. Word wizards, so to speak. He portrays them as, “argumentative, infantile, passionate, and temperamental… they’re good, honest people — just a bit weird, and hopeless at managing themselves” (148). Furthermore, they have “a mildly elastic regard for reality” (11). If that doesn’t describe me, and all of the English professors, readers, and bookish personalities I’ve ever met, I don’t know what does.
5. The jibes at societal norms
The text is full of big criticisms of things like consumerism and urban sprawl, but it also criticizes little things about how the world works that we take for granted, things we rarely think to question. My favorite of these digs is that licenses are referred to as “Certificates of Conformity.”
There are more things I loved, but they’re so legion and so little that they don’t fit into categories: I loved Jennifer’s description of the “sorcerer” level as being able to “conjure up light winds and start hedgehog migrations” (48). I loved that there are two elderly, twin sisters, both named Deirdre, called The Sisters Karamazov who wear matching tracksuits. I loved that Jennifer takes her tea the same way I take my coffee (milk and half a sugar). I loved that to practice transmutation, one of the wizards continually changes himself from human to walrus and back again. I loved that another stays up on his skills by doing the crossword puzzle in the newspaper without a pencil; he just steals letters from different articles telekinetically and drags them from page to page, placing them inside the appropriate boxes with his mind. I loved that Fforde resists giving in to the typical YA “love triangle” plot line. I loved that the story’s not a romance, at all. I loved the overall feminist message about the power of nature and the power of emotions. I loved the cover: I loved the dragon’s shiny, metallic scales, and the fact that the tail wraps around the back, so that what’s on the front isn’t even immediately recognizable as a dragon. I loved that the endpages are a vibrant orange color, like Jennifer’s Volkswagen, sans rust. I loved that Fforde uses the word “lolloped” (243) to describe Quarkbeast’s relaxed, happy gait, which isn’t even a word at all. As I said, I (pretty much) loved everything.
What I Spit Back Out:
1. My Dry Eyes.
That sounds gross. Like I ate my eyeballs and then regurgitated them. That’s not what happened. I don’t even think, in my future incarnation as a Quarkbeast, that I would do something so repulsive. (Though, little known fact: bunnies do eat their own poop). What I’m trying to express is that there were certain points in the novel, which were meant to impact me on an emotional level, and while I felt disappointed and while I felt the loss cerebrally and logically, I didn’t cry. And that’s rare for me. I think it was just that they happened so quickly – so abruptly – without set-up, or drama, or foreshadowing, or pomp, or circumstance, or mood – that I didn’t have time to process them. Time didn’t stop. Moments didn’t last more than a moment. Nothing slowed. And I guess that’s realistic, but I don’t think Fforde was trying to make a point. It wasn’t a book that called for the exhalation, “Ah, how like life.” I think it was just a small narrative failure – one which I hate to admit to, given how pumped I was on everything else. I guess it was sort of a relief not to have to use my box of tissues for once?
So I definitely recommend this book. I’m incredibly happy I read it. It’s an easy, amusing fantasy read – one that I think young adults, adults, and maybe even older children (tweens) might enjoy (even if some jokes & language go over their heads). I’m looking forward to reading the second book in the series, which was conveniently released in hardcover last week. It’s called The Song of the Quarkbeast, and I’ve already checked to see if it’s available within my library network. It’s not. I might actually purchase it. I want to read it that immediately and that badly. I’m also contemplating using some of the personal time I’ve stored up at work to leave early on Monday, September 23rd, to attend his book signing in Exeter, NH at Water Street Bookstore. His YA dragon series did what his adult Nursery Crimes series failed to: it made a Ffan out of me.
Pooka Rating: 4 out of 5 Nibbles.
Expect some more Jasper Fforde reviews in the distant future. I plan to check out his dystopian adult series, Shades of Grey. In the more immediate future, expect some dragon-themed photos of me.
Oh! Here they are!
How’d I know those were coming? I must be a pre-cog.