January 06, 2022

(+++) WHICH WAY?

Archibald Finch and the Lost Witches, Journey 1. By Michel Guyon. Illustrated by Zina Kostich. Andrews McMeel. $19.99.

     A cheap-shot ending and an irritating protagonist who grows only gradually and rather unconvincingly into a worthy central character on the one hand – some clever world-building, well-done use of fantasy tropes, and first-rate illustrations on the other. There you have Archibald Finch and the Lost Witches, a very worthwhile read for anyone willing to stick around until the title character, who never becomes consistent, at least turns into someone interesting. (Alternative: stick around until his sister, a cardboard modern teenager at first, actually becomes more engaging than her brother, who is described by the author himself as “something of a wimp.”)

     What Michel Guyon offers here is, in many ways, a formulaic alternative-worlds fantasy with all the expected elements: nerdy hero, feckless parents, even-more-feckless (in fact, ridiculous) authority figures in law enforcement, huge and old and maybe haunted house, smarmy and utterly cold-hearted villain through whom anyone except the adults in the story can see immediately, mysterious artifact that absolutely nobody can possibly figure out during hundreds of years (except that the protagonist does so almost immediately), benevolent older-generation family member who turns out to be evil or at least deeply misguided – the list goes on.

     However, Guyon often uses these fantasy-novel tropes in creative ways, which is a good thing in terms of keeping readers interested but a less-good one in that the creativity pulls the focus in many directions instead of maintaining it on the central character(s) – in other words, much of what is intriguing here comes in the form of descriptive material, background elements, and other not-the-main-story points.

     That main story features 12-year-old Archibald, who hates his name and does not know why it was foisted on him; and who knows just about everything, to the point of school being ridiculously unmotivating, but who does not know how or why he knows so much. The narrative also comes to feature his sister, 14-year-old Hailee, who is at first a bit player with formulaic older-sister issues and a preoccupation with her phone, but who sees Archibald disappear and as a result does rather a lot of growing up rather quickly and soon becomes a mystery-solver.

     Oh yes, that disappearance. After the family moves to a huge old house recently vacated by Archibald’s apparently deceased grandmother, Archibald becomes convinced that a Christmas present for him has been hidden somewhere in the place by his parents, who have done no such thing. In a search for the gift, he manages to stumble upon an extremely well-hidden, weird-looking globe that happens to have been made by Leonardo da Vinci and happens to have the power to transport people from Earth to a world called Lemurea. The only one with any idea of what is going on is the grandmother’s longtime servant/companion, Bartholomeo, who conveniently drops dead on page 30 without revealing anything, allowing the rest of the book to proceed.

     This is scarcely the only way in which the plot creaks. Archibald manages to get the globe to take him to the world of Lemurea, which turns out to be a place of refuge for witches, who have been brought there to protect them from evil characters on Earth who want to destroy them because, well, just because. Virtually everyone in Lemurea is a young girl, a fact that might be of more interest to Archibald if he were slightly older (and may become of interest to him in future books, Guyon hints, none too subtly). The problem is that Archibald does not know exactly how he made the trip and therefore cannot return to Earth, and nobody in Lemurea knows how the globe works, either, that being something that it falls to Hailee (back on Earth) to figure out, with the assistance of 15-year-old Oliver – whose father, a vicious and immoral drunkard, owns an antique shop into which Hailee goes in search of information. Hailee’s quest brings her and Oliver to the unwelcome attention of Jacob Heinrich, an evil sort-of-priest resembling the author of an anti-witch screed that dates to Leonardo’s time – in fact, Heinrich dates to Leonardo’s time, a discovery that will likely surprise very few readers.

     So while Hailee and Oliver try to figure out what the heck the Leonardo globe is and how the heck it works, Archibald and the witches of Lemurea – especially one named Faerydae, who takes Archibald more-or-less under her wing (so to speak: they do not really have wings) and teaches him the ways of Lemurean life – fight a bunch of monsters called Marodors and try to get some important information to Lemurea’s queen, who turns out (and this will be a spoiler only for readers who have never read any fantasy novels) to be Archibald’s grandmother, who is not really dead but also not really on the side of good (she is mostly on her own side).

     Along the way of the parallel quests of Archibald and Hailee, there are scenes involving very well-done fights with the Lemurean monsters (these fights are among the book’s best elements, easily overshadowing interest in the humans doing the actual battling); and there are multiple instances in which Archibald has no idea whatsoever of what something is or what is going on (so much for all his supposed knowledge: his ignorance of many straightforward things makes no sense after the initial buildup of his supposedly wide knowledge, and is one reason he is an unappealing central character through much of the book). Archibald is clearly no fighter, except when he has to be, and then he is (again, Guyon’s portrayal of him is highly inconsistent); he does turn out to be a somewhat creative thinker, though, deciding that Marodors can be tamed or cured (at least some are transformed humans) – an idea that no one else has thought of in 500-some-odd years. That idea starts to become important near the end of the book and will presumably be more fully explored in later series entries.

     Oh yes, the “series entry” thing. The book ends with a bang – literally – and a cliffhanger that is genuinely unfair to readers. Guyon does not seem to understand that even in novels for younger readers – this one is basically for preteens – one plays fair by providing a satisfying conclusion to the first book while also leaving open some matters to be explored further. This initial Archibald Finch and the Lost Witches volume does not just end in medias res – it ends in medias a mess. That is a significant authorial miscalculation.

     On the other hand, there is a lot of interesting material here that will be worth exploring if readers do not feel so cheated by the book’s conclusion as to turn their backs on later novels. The whole Heinrich thing, the real motivations of Archibald’s grandmother, the reason Leonardo da Vinci was so involved in protecting witches – these are a few areas worth investigating further. Then there are the magical weapons used by the witches against Marodors – weapons called golems even though that word has an entirely different meaning from the one it is given here. And there is the issue of just what the Marodors are and what can be done about (or to or with) them. Also, there are the names of the places within Lemurea, which seem vaguely to hint of additional stories that can be told, unless they simply indicate that Guyon is trying to make locations sound “fantasy-like”: Agrestal, Marrowclaw (a Harry Potter reference?), Beorbor, Spinkiden, Yolkenrof, Gristlemoth, Kakkerlakan, Gurguria, Worgonia, Arkæling, etc. And then there are the shape-changing keys (one of those minor details that are more interesting than major plot points): only one of them works with Leonardo’s globe, meaning the others must have stories yet to be told. There could even be language-related stories in future books, since much of the lightness in the narrative (yes, there is some) comes from dialogue in which synonyms and near-synonyms are thrown about hither and yon: “‘You think I’m buzzard-blind? …you know, squirrel minded. …It’s like chuckle-pate, but more like lourdish. Duncified, almost, but definitely more boobyish, if you know what I mean. …You know – witless, frost-brained, mossy, potato-headed?’”

     In any case, no matter what narrative weaknesses the book may have, the atmospheric and detailed illustrations by Zina Kostich are in and of themselves reason enough to spend time with Archibald, Hailee and the witches of Lemurea. Archibald Finch and the Lost Witches, Journey 1 is absolutely maddening in many ways, but there is enough cleverness in it, and there are enough twists in the tale-telling, to have readers eagerly anticipate a sequel – if they are not too dismayed by the heavy-handed way Guyon forces his readership to wait for another book in order to receive at least some degree of satisfactory closure.

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