14 May 2007

A Ratbridge Too Far

Here Be Monsters!, written and illustrated by Alan Snow, embodies a number of trends in modern fantasy publishing.

1) It's British. Snow lives in Bath, and the book manages to combine two abiding concerns of rural England: outlawed fox-hunting and cheeses.

2) It's illustrated. After many years of having illustrations confined only to novels for the youngest readers, publishers are laying out money for interior art again. Early exemplars were the US Harry Potter books, Tale of Desperaux, and Lemony Snicket series. Now even realistic novels such as The Higher Power of Lucky are getting visual, and fantasies like Larklight have even more drawings. In the Spiderwick series, author and illustrator worked together from the start. Writers are creating simple art (Greg Fishbone's Penguins of Doom) and artists are creating novels (Ruth McNally Barshaw's Ellie McDoodle). For this book, Snow has drawn an illustration or map for nearly every page. Which brings me to...

3) It's massive. Here Be Monsters! is over 500 pages long. The sizable type and leading show that the publishers wanted a book that thick. Furthermore, Atheneum has shelled out for an embossed dust jacket and pages with deckle edges (a supposed sign of luxury that I think makes books less easily read and thus less appealing). This book is, after all, merely the first volume of the promised Ratbridge Chronicles. And there's the requisite website, with games, animations, and screensavers [do any screens really need saving anymore?].

Snow's art reminds me of the great Quentin Blake's, and most of the fun of the book starts with them. Indeed, it looks like the whole story grew from the illustrations, and Snow was creating animations alongside his manuscript. Some of those short videos can be viewed at the book's homepage, or this page from Atheneum.

And that may be a reason I just wasn't turned on by Here Be Monsters! It feels like the scenario for an animated movie. In that format, the whimsical plot and characters could play out without interference from the prose. The actions are nifty and new, but the descriptions of those actions are flat and the depictions of emotions even more so. (Page 48: "...Willbury asked in a puzzled voice." Page 49: "Arthur looked sad.")

Here Be Monsters! also suffers from a quality shared by a number of classic animated movies: a dearth of significant female characters. By page 100, we've met young foundling Arthur, his grandfather, his powerful and eccentric protector Willbury, four little refugees from the underground, two even tinier refugees--and they're all male. We've glimpsed a secret society of cheese-hunters--also all male.

Sure, there's a woman who swipes at Arthur's artificial wings when he steals bananas from her greenhouse (a quickly vanishing antagonist). There's an unintelligible sea-cow separated from her children (a purely symbolic mother figure). Willbury mentions a female colleague. And the "Taxonomy of Trolls and Creatures" in the frontmatter hints at the eventual arrival of "Rabbit Women," sort of: "Very little is known about these mythical creatures..." Well, that's the problem, isn't it?

Page 110 finally brings the first extended glimpse of the women of Ratbridge:

There were an awful lot of ladies doing an awful lot of cackling. And as they cackled, they tottered slowly down the streets, their bottoms wobbling behind them. Arthur had not seen bottoms like these before. From the way the ladies paraded their derrieres, it seemed that to have an interesting behind was very much the thing!
These ladies are in thrall to a "Fashion Princess" who's obviously a nasty con artist, and just a little less obviously the male villain in drag. And by that point I'd stopped reading.


Gail Gauthier said...

I was very underwhelmed by this book. A cliched story with characters who were wacky for the sake of being wacky.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, nothing makes one want to kick bunnies more than forced whimsy.

fusenumber8 said...

I was fond of it but it sank like a stone with my children's bookgroup. They couldn't even get past the brown cover. Plus they took a particular dislike to the illustrations.

J. L. Bell said...

So here I'm trying to analyze the value of fresh phrasing, whimsy, and balanced depiction of the genders, and what matters most is not to have a brown cover. That's humbling.

As I grew up, I had a British joke book illustrated by Quentin Blake. I didn't get all the jokes (just what is a "vicar"? I kept wondering). But I liked the art a lot, so I was drawn to Snow's volume for that sake.

It is a voluminous volume, though, so I would have needed more to pull me through.

Monica Edinger said...

I tried several times (especially because of fuse's enthusiastic review), but never got far. Each time I kept waiting for something to kick in, to connect me to the characters, to what was going on, something. But it never happened. Just seemed cliched, derivative, and tedious.

Anonymous said...

Yes I agree. The characters lacked - well, character. There was no inner tension, not plot beyond a string of implausible wierd occurances. My kids lost interest before I did...