November 21, 2007


Pure Dead Frozen. By Debi Gliori. Knopf. $15.99.

Muddle Earth. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

      Series creators sometimes go out in a blaze of glory – or, in the case of Pure Dead Frozen, a blaze of Gliori. Other times, they try their hand at something new and merely sputter and fizzle, as in Muddle Earth.

      Better things first: Pure Dead Frozen is a gliori-ous conclusion to a six-book series about the thoroughly weird and thoroughly delightful Strega-Borgia family of Scotland, and if you think “gliori-ous” is a bad pun, stop reading right now, because this is an author who explains some of the terms she uses with a section at the end of the book called a “Gliossary.” The themes and characters of the other five Pure Dead books – Magic, Wicked, Brilliant, Trouble and Batty – all get pulled neatly together in Pure Dead Frozen, a nonstop farce in which, among many other things, a demon steals a human child that promptly pees, poops and vomits all over him, including once in a revolving door, as Gliori keeps score: “Babies, 3; Demons, 0.” Let’s see…there’s a wolf invasion of the Strega-Borgia family home, in which the wolves turn out to be good guys; there’s a timely intervention by a relative who has been dead for several hundred years; there’s a premarital split between the local teenage dragon and her intended, the Sleeper (a Loch Ness Monster type), that almost destabilizes the universe by allowing S’tan, master of Hades, to recover a bauble that controls all time; there is the reappearance in all his evil of the black sheep of the family, Don Lucifer di S’Embowelli Borgia, except he’s more of a black rat, having received a rat’s snout in an earlier book, which is removed in this one through the potent but unregulated power of two-year-old Damp Strega-Borgia; there is a hilarious falling-in-love scene that Gliori takes from love at first sight to honeymoon within just a few words while making it thoroughly believable, even though it occurs in the midst of a siege; and there’s so much more than the only way to describe the book fully is to read it from cover to cover. Which you really should do. Debi Gliori is one twisted writer – twisted in all the right directions. The scene in which S’tan is force-fed a substance that renders him docile is priceless. And the one in which the Sleeper functions as a fire hose. And the one in which – oh heck, there are lots of priceless scenes, and all for the price of $15.99.

      It is reasonable to have high hopes for anything by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, creators of The Edge Chronicles (seven volumes available in the U.S.) and Far-Flung Adventures (three volumes so far). In both those series, Stewart’s amusingly offbeat character delineations work beautifully with Riddell’s fascinating, astonishingly detailed drawings, which look as if Gustav DorĂ© did them after a sugar binge. The illustrations are first-rate in Muddle Earth, too, but the story is a huge disappointment – so much so that the book deserves a (+++) rating if you have never seen Riddell’s art before and are swept away by it here, but only (++) if you have been enchanted by it in other, much better contexts. Not one single character in Muddle Earth ever really engages the reader – a fatal flaw. We are supposed to empathize with young Joe Jefferson, unceremoniously dumped into Muddle Earth thanks to a summoning by the thoroughly incompetent wizard, Randalf. But Joe is unremittingly stupid – a no-no if one wants young readers to ally themselves with him – and repeatedly fails to see what is going on around him. He learns early on that Randalf is not a real wizard, but never makes use of the information – and eventually declares that he will always think of this self-absorbed lazy braggart as Randalf the Wise. He lets himself be decked out in junk that supposedly goes with his new designation as Joe the Barbarian. He meekly lets himself be shackled when one thoroughly feckless character says he really needs to allow it. And much more. The book is an obvious – too obvious – sendup of heroic quests and, of course, of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth (Randalf instead of Gandalf and all that). A few elements, such as the Perfumed Bog and the pink stinky hogs that live there, are well done. But most of Muddle Earth just isn’t funny. Stewart and Riddell seem to have tried too hard here – they have done much better elsewhere.

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