"Who, exactly, is the Mysterious X?"
"They're more of a what than a who. It won't be in a form you'll recognise, and there is something other about X that defies easy explanation. It's more of a sense than a person. A shroud, if you like, that confuses their true form. It also smells of unwashed socks and peanut butter. You'll be fine."
Tiger looked at the note, then at the Quarkbeast, then at where the moose had been but suddenly wasn't, then back at me.
"This is a test, isn't it?"
Yes, little children, this is a test. Are you going to grow up to be the kind of person who not only reads all the books of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy but who also seeks out the radio recordings? Will the Discworld become a second home to you? If you cut yourself shaving, will you always claim that "it's just a flesh wound!" in a defensive tone and a British accent?
If so, The Last Dragonslayer is your brand of silly.
Well, I take that back a little. I don't do hardly any of those things (er, anymore), and yet I enjoyed this book just fine.
The Last Dragonslayer concerns an orphan, a dragon, and magic. Magic that is commonplace, regulated, and on the wane, practiced by magicians who have organized into agencies and who hire out to (magically) inspect welds, clear drains, and lift heavy things. They're just like home repair contractors, except more likely to go insane. Our main character is a non-magician, Jennifer Strange.
Here's a thing I never do, but I've been sleazing around on Jasper Fforde's website and he's just so darn entertaining, I thought I'd steal his description of his main character, as it touches on my one and only criticism of this book:
Fifteen in two weeks at the time of the Dragonslayer adventure, Jennifer is a foundling who was left in the glovebox of her 1958 Volkswagen Beetle outside the Blessed Lady of the Lobster. She was subsequently sold into indentured servitude to Kazam, the House of Enchantment where she quickly became an indispensable assistant to The Great Zambini, taking over entirely from him when he vanished.
You either go for this stuff, as I said, or you don't. Me, I'm in. My son Milo, he's in, sitting on the couch cackling to himself as he reads. Allow Mr. Fforde to continue:
Fearless, mature (she passed her driving test at thirteen) she is the employment agent for the eleven sorcerers still on the active list at Kazam. Blessed with an unwavering sense of right and wrong, it is she who guided the Big Magic to its conclusion, and learned a thing or two about Dragons on the way. Outlawed by King Snodd on grounds of treason and tax-evasion, threatened with death by his agents and now sponsored by Fizzi- pop-cola, Jennifer remains one of the most controversial figures in the Kingdom. She currently works at Kazam.
I haven't read this man's adult books. I gather from their covers that they are amusing, cracked, punny, fun mysteries. The Last Dragonslayer is amusing, cracked, fun, and maybe a little lighter on the puns, which you have to be, writing for a cohort of readers who don't have their Brontë or British war movie references immediately to hand.
The book contains believable action, sharp dialogue, and a mild conservationist message. Details are satisfyingly lavish and absurd. For example: the Quarkbeast, a devoted pet that is one-tenth Labrador retriever, with the rest of its genetic heritage coming from the velociraptor and a kitchen blender.
So, absolutely. Very fun. Something bothers me about the character, however. Jennifer. Described as "mature" by Fforde, she in fact betrays almost no hint of being a child at all. Possessed of a job and a car, confident when speaking to adults, Jennifer discovers important things about herself in the course of the novel, but the things that she discovers are not coming-of-age things. Rather, this capable young woman discovers that she is even more capable than she had thought.
Not that every young character in every children's novel has to undertake a journey toward emotional maturity - if that were the case I'd hang up my reviewing hat right here and now, switch to tech blogging. (Think of the swag!) But Jennifer reads like a twenty-eight-year-old woman who just doesn't happen to be dating right now. And her sidekick, Tiger Prawns, who is meant to be eleven? If I hadn't been told he was eleven I think I would have assumed he was at least seventeen.
But I don't think this is going to bother most readers. The unusually self-possessed heroine is something of a staple in books of this ilk. Think of Tiffany Aching, from Terry Pratchett's Wee Free Men books; and Stephanie Edgley/Valkyrie Cain, in the Skulduggery Pleasant trilogy. Both of those series are stylistic and thematic cousins of this book, and both of those girls are rather advanced in the sharps department. And it sure doesn't do them any harm.
In fact, taken together, all this smart-aleck British humor, with its jokes that often follow the patterns of classical logical arguments and fallacies, seems to have as its express purpose relieving some of the pressure of being the smartest guys in the room. Think about the Pythons - jeez those guys are smart (except for Idle, of course). Think about the people who like Monty Python - the guy who destroyed the grading curve in your undergrad physics class, the one who's now working on the Hubble. Also that guy whose science project baffled even the teachers, I hear that guy programs all the hair and fur at Pixar. Those guys could recite every line of Life Of Brian. In a time of Fonzie and Archie Bunker, the Pythons let smart people be silly too.
[....] [*strangled noises*]
Ok. All right. I am not going to pursue this line of thinking any further. I am bound to offend somebody. I'll leave it at this: Jasper Fforde has two more Dragonslayer books coming: one will be called Song of the Quarkbeast and the other is called As Yet Unnamed Dragonslayer Book. I'll be pre-ordering both of them for the smart kids in my life.
There's an app. I'd like to be reviewing it for Electronic Thursday, but I haven't gotten my hands on it yet.