October 16, 2008

(++++) WORDS AND ART, BEAUTIFULLY BALANCED

Barnaby Grimes: Curse of the Night Wolf. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. David Fickling Books. $15.99.

The Edge Chronicles IX: Clash of the Sky Galleons. By Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell. David Fickling Books. $12.99.

     It is customary in books containing pictures to note the author and illustrator separately, but it makes perfect sense to give Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell equal billing in their many wonderful fantasies, for they are a sort of Gilbert-and-Sullivan team in children’s literature: each contributes something very important, but the combination adds up to far more than the sum of its parts. Stewart’s narratives are well constructed, nicely paced and cleverly plotted; Riddell’s illustrations are amazingly detailed and quite unlike anything else to be found in books that are ostensibly for young readers – in fact, they more closely resemble Gustav Dor√© works than modern pictures, and are worth studying again and again by kids and adults alike. The newest Stewart-Riddell collaboration, Barnaby Grimes, for ages 8-12, splendidly carries on this team’s tradition of offbeat plotting, fascinating characters and enough touches of the supernatural and outr√© to keep pages turning from start to finish. Barnaby is a “tick-tock lad” (a messenger) in a version of Victorian London, and one of the last remaining “highstackers” (boys who travel over the roofs of the city). The atmosphere of long-ago London is beautifully conveyed both in Stewart’s words and in Riddell’s illustrations, some of which are silhouettes – a style appropriate to the period of the story. Barnaby, in narrating this tale, makes many references to strange things he has seen and odd events in which he has been involved, so it is clear that this book is the start of what could easily be a fascinating ongoing series. The occurrences in Curse of the Night Wolf are plenty strange enough: on a rooftop one night, Barnaby is attacked by a huge, vicious, doglike creature – and learns soon afterwards that there seems to be a plague of wolves in London. Barnaby finds himself in the employ of one Dr. Cadwallader, benevolent administrator of health-reviving tonics to the poor and downtrodden – and perhaps something more sinister as well. The mystery element here is fairly thin – many young readers will figure out what is going on before Barnaby does – but the swift pacing and excellent portrayals of even the subsidiary characters lend the book an aura of grittiness that is another Stewart-Riddell trademark. As in their other series – Far-Flung Adventures and The Edge Chronicles – Stewart and Riddell manage here to create a book that is complete in itself but that will leave readers hungry for more of the same in the future.

     Actually, The Edge Chronicles itself is nearing completion – its main sequence will consist of 10 books in all – and has now gone through three separate trilogies, featuring the characters Twig, Rook and Quint. The illustrations in this series are glorious – they are even more detailed and even more expressive than Riddell’s work in Barnaby Grimes, even though The Edge Chronicles is aimed at essentially the same age group (10-12, although many of the books in this series will appeal to teenagers as well as preteens). The chronology of the stories is rather confusing. The first three books focus on Twig, who is of the third generation of the family that the series follows in something less than a straight line. Books 5-7 are about Rook, who is from the fifth generation. Book 4, The Curse of the Gloamglozer, starts the story of Quint, who is of the second generation; his tale continues only in Book 8, The Winter Knights, and is concluded in Book 9, Clash of the Sky Galleons. Quint is, unfortunately, the least interesting of the three protagonists, and even the tale of Quint and his father, a sky pirate named Wind Jackal, aboard the flying ship called Galerider, is less compelling than some of Twig’s and Rook’s adventures. Clash of the Sky Galleons is a more violent and bloody book than many in the series (although The Edge Chronicles is never without violence); but the title battle occurs only fairly near the end and, in truth, seems rather perfunctory after all that has gone before. Among the highly appealing elements in this book are the extent to which it takes place aboard the flying ship, with Stewart giving extended explanations of how the ship works and how the crew handles various duties (explanations that do, however, slow down the forward thrust of the narrative); and the manner in which the characters travel throughout the world of this series – from the Edge itself to the far reaches of the Deepwoods. The plot involves Wind Jackal’s search for revenge against a character named Turbot Smeal, who is responsible for a fire that killed most of Wind Jackal’s family. But Wind Jackal’s lapses of judgment, occasioned by the emotional overload of his desire for vengeance, put the sky pirate himself and his remaining child, Quint (who, despite his name, is Wind Jackal’s sixth child, not his fifth), in jeopardy. Throw in dangerous Shryke warriors (members of a race of huge, vicious birds), unpredictable and deadly weather patterns, and such menaces as the Bloodoak trees, and you have an action-packed book – with, unfortunately, a less interesting young character at its heart than in other Edge Chronicles entries. Riddell’s marvelous illustrations – of everything from the human characters to the numerous wonderfully imagined denizens of the Deepwoods (cray-spinners, wood-whelks, hoglets, halitoads, silver-backed quarms, terrifying landfish, beautiful but deadly skull-pecker birds, and many others) to the sky-shipyard where flying ships are assembled – are an even bigger attraction, in this case, than Stewart’s story. But it is the combination of the work of these highly talented men that continues to make The Edge Chronicles such an enthralling saga.

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