March 15, 2007


Far-Flung Adventures No. 3: Hugo Pepper. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. David Fickling Books. $14.99.

The Secret History of Tom Trueheart. By Ian Beck. Greenwillow/HarperCollins. $16.99.

      Tales of the bold, brave and venturesome just don’t get any better than these two. Neither of these books is “high fantasy,” with world-spanning themes and antique-sounding language. Both are far more down-to-Earth than that, although both heroes actually spend a good deal of time above the Earth (Hugo in a flying craft, Tom in the land beyond the clouds that is reached by climbing that famous fairy-tale beanstalk). The heroes here are above all likable, their adventures thrilling for readers ages 8-12 or so, the authors’ style gripping enough to keep those pages turning from start to finish.

      Hugo Pepper has something more: the superb, amazingly detailed illustrations of Chris Riddell. Riddell and Paul Stewart are co-creators of The Edge Chronicles, which is for somewhat older readers and built on a grander scale than the Far-Flung Adventures series. But Riddell’s illustrations have never been better than they are in Hugo Pepper, whose adventures follow those chronicled in Fergus Crane and Corby Flood. In fact, one of the great charms of this series is the way each book recalls elements of the earlier ones: parts of the first two books fit very neatly into this third one, although you can read Hugo Pepper on its own and enjoy it very much indeed. The structure of this book is quite interesting: forward-moving narrative is interspersed with what appear to be fairy tales or folk tales, which all turn out to be true within the book’s world – and important to what eventually happens. Hugo, raised by reindeer herders Harvi and Sarvi Runter-Tun-Tun, actually comes from a town far away from the frozen north. Hugo’s journey to find out about his birth family brings him to Firefly Square, where a cast of delightful eccentrics (excellently delineated by Riddell) is facing the nefarious doings of the publisher of a corrupt muckraking magazine. Among the characters Hugo meets are two helpful mermaids, who spend most of their time running a shop on dry land; tea sellers whose brews create, emphasize or counteract emotional states and also help predict the future, if a bit enigmatically; a rug restorer whose special slippers let her float in the air; and more. The characters all have pasts of their own, including a connection with a famed female pirate and a one-eyed ship’s cat. Stewart knits the tale so well together, and Riddell illustrates it so beautifully (including a wraparound cover that, unfolded, is a fine map of Firefly Square, with character portraits along the top and bottom), that even the disappointing ending – the bad guys do not get what they most certainly have coming to them – doesn’t seem too awful. Hugo Pepper is wonderful to read and absolutely delightful to see.

      The Secret History of Tom Trueheart relies more on words than on pictures – although Ian Beck’s silhouette illustrations are not bad at all. It makes sense that this is a word-oriented book, because the bad guy here is none other than a renegade storyteller. The world is one in which there exists a Land of Stories, to which the six older Trueheart brothers – all named Jack or some variation thereof – venture upon the order of story creators, to be transformed or rescue damsels in distress or otherwise live out fairy tales such as “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” “Rapunzel” and “The Frog Prince.” Everyone in the Land of Stories is acting a role, and each character really has character – Cinderella proves particularly feisty. Unfortunately, on the brothers’ latest assignments, something goes very wrong, and the Master of the Story Bureau himself orders young Tom, who is just 12, to find out what has gone wrong and to set it right. This is not simple, as “The Rules of the Land of Stories” (neatly laid out in four pages) make clear. But Tom, accompanied by a sprite transformed to a helpful crow, doggedly (or crow-edly) makes his way along the roads his brothers had taken, following up on their disappearances and – at the end – setting things almost right. Tom’s many adventures are funny in themselves and funny as takeoffs on well-known fairy tales. But there is a darker (well, not much darker) undercurrent here, involving the long-ago disappearance of Tom’s and his brothers’ father. And that particular thread is very deliberately left unraveled by Beck as the book ends, setting the stage for what should be a wonderful sequel. And the sooner, the better.

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