August 17, 2006


Unlikely Exploits, No. 2: Heir of Mystery; No. 3: The Rise of the House of McNally. By Philip Ardagh. Scholastic. $5.99 each.

     Blimey if Philip Ardagh didn’t pull it off after all.  His latest trilogy, Unlikely Exploits, had a less-than-promising beginning in the first book, The Fall of Fergal.  Certainly the trilogy showed no signs of matching Ardagh’s previous three-book foray into absurdity, The Eddie Dickens Trilogy.  But Ardagh has pulled the proverbial fat out of the proverbial fire with a second Unlikely Exploits book that brings readers back to laugh-out-loud land, and a third that goes beyond slapstick into the realm of actual cleverness.

     This trilogy is about the impoverished McNally family, which includes a dead mother, an alcoholic father with a wooden leg, and five children, one of whom dies at the start of the first book.  This is not a promising setup for humor, and in The Fall of Fergal (Fergal being the one who goes splat in Book One), Ardagh never quite makes the whole situation lighthearted enough.  He does, though, introduce a few interesting elements, such as the ability of the oldest McNally child to change her shape: her name is Jackie, and she can become a jackal at will.

     This is one element that the second and third books develop effectively and amusingly.  Another is the younger McNally kids’ names, which we find out refer to strange powers that they have but of which they are not yet aware.  The kids’ names are Le Fay, Albion and Joshua (Fergal’s powers having presumably failed to be of much help when he was smushed on the pavement).  It is not until the very end of the third book that the McNally children and we learn everything they can do.

     But first we must get through the second book, which involves brain transplantation (thus keeping Fergal around as a character, or part of a character), a ruined mansion in the midst of scary Fishbone Forest, and a very strange individual called Mr. Maggs – who doesn’t seem quite human and always clutches a teddy bear.  Also, a plague of spontaneously appearing holes, about which we learn a bit in Book One, plays an important part in Book Two and is fully explained in Book Three.

     Let’s see – what else?  Well, in Book Two, Mr. Maggs is doing nefarious deeds because he is determined to change the world by, among other things, rearranging the alphabet.  In Book Three, the head of Tap ‘n’ Type, the company whose typing contest Le Fay won in Book One – moments before Fergal’s fall – turns out to be not at all what he seems.  The same may be said of the teddy bear.  Fergal, it turns out, is exactly what he seems, which by this time is something quite different from the pathetic squashed pile that he had seemed to be (and, in fact, was) in Book One.  And if all this sounds confusing, you ought to see how confusing Ardagh makes it, with many asides to the reader, a variety of puns (as in the title of Book Two), and (in Book Three) a time scheme that refuses to behave reasonably and progress normally.  “There are exciting times ahead,” says one character in the final book – but in fact, there are exciting times ahead, behind, right now, and probably elsewhen.  To figure all this out, you will simply have to read the entire Unlikely Exploits trilogy.  Definitely do not stop with Book One, or you will be unlikely to read the other two.  Those are the ones that make enjoyment of the whole series very likely indeed.

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