October 16, 2008


The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. By Terry Pratchett. HarperTeen. $6.99.

A Mystery for Thoreau. By Kin Platt. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $16.

Paddington Here and Now. By Michael Bond. Illustrated by R.W. Alley. HarperCollins. $15.99.

The Faerie Door. By B.E. Maxwell. Harcourt. $17.

     “Fantasy” nowadays tends to mean “heroic fantasy,” which means very long books with complex plots and lots of medieval-style weaponry, plus a liberal dose of magic. But some fantasy novels buck the heroic-fantasy trend, and are the better for it. All of Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” novels might be called anti-heroic fantasy, focused as they are on such mundane matters as city governance, cultural differences among races, and the annoying tendency of immortals and natural forces to interfere in the affairs of mere human beings (including those with magic powers, most of whom are distinctly inept). The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, first published in 2001 and now available in a new paperback edition, is even further from heroic fantasy than is the norm for Pratchett. Maurice, you see, is a cat, and the rodents are rats that have become highly intelligent after rooting through the garbage left behind by the wizards (the aforementioned distinctly inept practitioners of magic). And the whole story is a mostly rollicking rethinking of the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin – but with room for Pratchett’s distinctive musings on good and evil and on what it means to be human (in one of many touches that show Pratchett’s effective and idiosyncratic style, the rats’ near-humanness is made clear when they bury one of their number who has died – instead of eating him, as typical rats would). The rats bear such names as Darktan, Toxie, Big Savings, Additives and Dangerous Beans – again, oddball names that make sense in context are a Pratchett trademark – and the style is pure Pratchett, as when Maurice contemplates his Retirement Plan: “Once I’ve made a pile, I’m headed for a nice home with a big fire and a nice old lady giving me cream every day.” These musings occur while Maurice is exploring underground, where something very nasty appears to live: “He wasn’t exactly lost, because cats never get lost. He merely didn’t know where everything else was.” It turns out that something is very rotten in the town of Bad Blintz, and it will take all Maurice’s cleverness – plus the help of some cooperative human children – to deal with a genuinely frightening threat. Ostensibly a book for ages 12 and up, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents will be too scary for some sensitive kids and teenagers – and comes across as a slightly-easier-to-read version of Pratchett’s distinctly adult novels.

     A Mystery for Thoreau should appeal to preteens and young teens, too, but it is a fantasy of a very different sort. This is the only known historical novel by Kin Platt, a prolific comic-strip writer and artist who started producing novels in the 1960s. This one has never been published before, and it is something of a find. Well paced and historically accurate as it relates to the Transcendentalists who populated Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840s, it offers accessible style and some neat turns of phrase (“the callous brutality and bravado of children”) as well as a more-than-passable mystery. The fictional central character is 16-year-old Oliver Puckle, a reporter for the Concord Freeman, who finds himself investigating a murder at Walden Pond – yes, that Walden Pond. Town politics and race relations simmer in the background, and so does a hinted-at romance between Oliver and a new arrival from the big city, Margaret Roberts. Where Henry David Thoreau fits into all this is, well, right in the middle. He is not a suspect in the murder – he was in jail when it occurred for refusing, on principle, to pay his poll tax – but he is an observant fellow with a keen feeling for what makes sense at Walden Pond and what is amiss. The events in A Mystery for Thoreau never took place, but the book has enough verisimilitude so readers will imagine that they could have happened. And Platt manages to create, with a few broad strokes, memorable portraits of characters ranging from the real (Louisa May Alcott) to the fictional (Charley Bigbow). Bigbow is especially enjoyable, being quite capable of pretending to be what white settlers expect (“You lost. Me find. Indian see everything. Better than bloodhound, who only smell.”) while in reality being educated and well-spoken (“Stalking silently, carefully noting the presence or displacement of every leaf and blade of grass.”) The mystery turns out to have more than a little to do with another famous American of the 1840s, Edgar Allan Poe, and the solution is neat. It is, in fact, a little too neat, as Platt wraps up the book quickly and leaves several threads tantalizingly hanging – notably the possible future of Oliver and Margaret. Platt apparently never wrote a sequel to A Mystery for Thoreau, but it would certainly be nice if one turned up somewhere.

     Paddington Here and Now is itself a sequel – a sequel to sequels, actually – and is aimed at younger children. It is intended for ages 8-12 and will perhaps be a little too treacly for more-sophisticated readers in that age range. This is the first new Paddington novel in 30 years, and it is in many ways a worthy successor to the series that Michael Bond started with A Bear Called Paddington in 1958. Unfortunately, the world has moved on a great deal in the past half-century, but Bond and Paddington have not. Parents drenched in fond memories of earlier Paddington Bear adventures (this is the 12th Paddington story) are likely to find this book more enjoyable than their kids will – in somewhat the same way that the Mary Poppins books do not wear very well for today’s kids, whose experience of magic in novels is quite different from what P.L. Travers offers. Bond keeps Paddington charming and mildly trouble-prone, but his worries continue to be minor ones, with only a few updatings (one funny travel-agency scene involves Paddington’s possession of exactly one frequent-flier mile). Paddington’s adventures – losing his shopping basket, accidentally locking grouchy Mr. Curry outside, ending up in the middle of a benefit concert – have old-fashioned charm, and the book’s eventual affirmation that “home is where you hang your hat” is a simple and pleasant one. But Paddington Here and Now feels as if it belongs to an earlier time, and is not likely to charm nearly as many children today to the extent that it charmed the kids of the 1950s. The book gets a (+++) rating, colored in part by nostalgia.

     The Faerie Door gets a (+++) rating, too – for different reasons. B.E. Maxwell’s first novel for young readers is a deliberate throwback to Victorian-era fantasies, complete with dragons, flying pirate ships and the wonders of Faerieland. The plot, unfortunately, is a creaky one, with the good Faerie Queen and wicked Shadow Knight vying for control of portals that the Queen created long ago so children could summon help from faeries whenever they needed to. The Queen uses two 11-year-olds from different ages as warriors against the Shadow Knight: Victoria Deveny, who lives in a manor house in 1890 Britain, and Elliot Good, from a small town in 1966 America. For many young readers today, 1966 seems as far in the past as 1890, so some of the point of the two-era approach is dulled. And although many parts of the children’s quests – they are seeking orbs of power that can defeat the Shadow Knight – are well written and at least mildly scary (such as a confrontation with a wicked sorceress queen), the book as a whole tends to plod, its events coming across as variations on tales told many times before. To an extent, of course, Maxwell does this deliberately, as homage to the 19th-century stories he used as models. But The Faerie Door finally seems less to be inspired by tales of long ago than to make its way by simply replicating elements of those stories – and not always their cleverest or most interesting aspects. It is, in fact, almost-heroic if not quite heroic fantasy, following clearly in the footsteps of E. Nesbit – whose works, however, are neither as long as The Faerie Door (which runs 471 pages) nor as portentous.

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