May 03, 2018
(++++) AMUSEMENT, WITH MONSTERS
Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain. By Zac Gorman. Illustrated by Sam Bosma. Harper. $16.99.
It takes a certain amount of courage, or foolhardiness, to set a new fantasy-adventure series in a land called Nth. Nth? Zac Gorman’s debut novel may not be successful to the nth degree, but it is an unusually clever preteen adventure with an unusually strong focus on a single protagonist rather than the more-typical group of largely interchangeable buddies.
Take that protagonist’s name, for example. “Thisby Thestoop”? There is a perfectly logical explanation for it, within Gorman’s twisted but consistent world. An infant girl abandoned by her parents (“most parents are idiots, yours especially,” one character sagely observes), she is grabbed by a minotaur, one of the less-terrifying denizens of the Black Mountain, who is a touch full from lunch and decides to keep this snack for later. So he leaves a courteous note for the goblin maintenance staff: “Found This By The Stoop. Please Keep For Later.” However, because minotaurs have poor penmanship – apparently cursive is not taught to them any more than it currently is to many human children in our world – the goblins read this as: “Found, Thisby Thestoop. Please Keep Forever.” And there you have it – the start of it, anyway.
The “it” that starts here is the story of a 12-year-old girl in a fantastical realm where she cares for all sorts of monsters in such a way as to prevent all sorts of mayhem. She is not some undiscovered heroine about to come into potent powers, not the object of some strange prophecy – not, in short, any of the usual things that protagonists in preteen fantasy-adventures tend to be. Instead, and this is a wonderful notion on Gorman’s part, she is a careful observer of her environment who takes copious notes (presumably in better handwriting than that of a minotaur) that she reviews later. “It’s unbelievable what can be accomplished when a person pays attention and takes diligent notes, and nobody paid better attention or took better notes than Thisby Thestoop.” This is a most unusual talent for the central character in a book like this.
The Black Mountain is intertwined with Castle Grimstone, and Gorman’s casual description of the castle’s provenance is a good sample of his clever writing: “Of the thirty-three architects who had overseen the construction of the castle, only two of them weren’t criminally insane, and at least one of those two was just never caught in the act.” The mountain and castle exist in Nth largely to give the land’s impoverished would-be adventurers the faint but inevitably vain hope of getting in, getting out alive, and bringing home some of the treasure reputed to be within the usual deep, black dungeons. Thisby’s job as maintainer of the various monsters, which mostly involves keeping them satisfied so they do not run amok and go after each other, is done so the population at large will not “realize this wasn’t actually an ‘evil dungeon being kept alive with powerful, ancient magic,’ but more of a tourist attraction, a sort of day care for bored kids with swords – albeit one with a terribly high mortality rate.”
Thisby does have a couple of friends, including an elderly goblin named Grunda and a “talking ball of glowing mucus” named Mingus, who turns out to have a deep dark secret. Or rather a Deep Down secret – the Deep Down being the area below even the lowest parts of the lowest dungeons farthest beneath the Black Mountain. Mingus, to whom Thisby has given some make-believe eyes and a make-believe mouth so he can sort of have expressions, is another delightfully offbeat Gorman creation. And Gorman gets extra credit for occasional subtle references to other fantasy series, such as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld sequence: “Thisby had even read something once that claimed the world was held on the back of a giant turtle moving through space. She’d quite enjoyed that one.”
All of Gorman’s cleverness, and there is quite a lot of it, makes up for an underlying plot that is far less unusual. It has to do with a Royal Inspection of Thisby’s environs, featuring the 15-year-old royal twins, Iphigenia and Ingo. Iphigenia is two minutes older, therefore destined to rule, and extremely stuck-up and self-involved. Ingo is handsome, persuasive, and quite obviously going to turn out to be a bad guy who wants to usurp the throne. This becomes clear quickly: the Royal Inspection is Ingo’s idea – and after everything, of course, goes wrong, Iphigenia finds herself thinking that “her brother had insisted on it” and “whatever Ingo wanted, Ingo got.” In case the hints early in the story are not enough, as the tale progresses and Iphigenia needs Thisby’s help to search for supposedly kidnapped Ingo, Iphigenia finds herself thinking, “Ingo was great at fooling everyone, but his sister saw through him. She knew him better than anyone else.” Umm, no. The one who knows Ingo better than anyone else is a gigantic force lying deep, deep, deep beneath everything and known as the Eyes in the Dark, the ultimate bad guy here. It is the machinations of the Eyes in the Dark and the growing friendship between Thisby and out-of-her-depth Iphigenia that together make up the major plot points in a generally well-paced, well-structured, thoroughly entertaining novel.
This is not to say that everything works. Gorman can be a touch too cute for his own good, as in designating chapters 17.5 and 22.5 for no apparent reason. And many of the illustrations by Sam Bosma are disappointments. In one spot, for example, Gorman carefully describes the bizarre bricks of a building, which Bosma shows with ordinary bricks; in another, Gorman makes a point of writing about Iphigenia wearing Thisby’s gigantic backpack, but the illustration does not show her doing so. Still, the vast majority of Thisby Thestoop and the Black Mountain is several cuts above typical fantasy-adventures for ages 8-12, and will surely whet young readers’ appetite for further forays into the life, times and courage, or foolhardiness, of the oddly but appropriately named Thisby Thestoop. The next one will be called Thisby Thestoop and the Wretched Scrattle.