If I had read this book when I was ten, I would have not only insisted it was the best book ever written, I would have bitten the ankles of anyone who dared suggest otherwise. It has everything a fantasy loving kid could want: pirates! evil kings! elves! shapeshifters! monsters! zombies! talking animals! And as you might expect, lots and lots of dragons!
The novel starts out with three men brought together by the mysterious murder of their friend, a professor of ancient languages. Soon they’re warned by a man named Bert, who looks like he stepped out of a fairy tale, that they are in grave danger. Wendigo, dog-like monsters, are chasing them to steal the Imaginarium Geographica, a unique atlas that contains the secrets of the magical land known as the Archipelago. They get on a magic ship, the Indigo Dragon, and soon they’re in another world, where every island is more magical than the last.
This novel was deftly plotted in an action formula so familiar that I found myself nodding along with the beats, as if listening to a well-known song. Excepting that it ended 75% of the way through, and had a too-long denouement, it followed the blockbuster movie plotlines exactly. This would make a great movie.
One notable thing about this book is how gentle it is. Despite evil monsters and a giant climactic battle scene, there are no injuries and only one death. Early on, a character is taken by the wendigo, presumably to be killed, but it’s called “it”, has no name, and the protagonists forget about its fate immediately afterwards. You’ve heard of “cozy mysteries?” This is a “cozy fantasy.” Young readers who find Harry Potter too dark and horrific will find this a pleasing alternative. This is a novel that doesn’t have dirt under its fingernails.
This is the highest of high fantasy. Things work because “magic” and you aren’t meant to look too closely or ask too many questions. Unfortunately, I like to dissect all kinds of stories, even magic ones, and I had questions galore. Why are they called “shadowborn” if they’re not born that way? Why do people become catatonic zombies when their shadows are ripped from them, but if they lose them organically, they get twice as much energy? Why did *name withheld* start to lose his shadow, when he didn’t do anything evil? Why do people presume the orphaned boy will make a good king, despite his lack of education and/or political experience? I didn’t ask why the supposedly wisest man in the world told the confessed traitor all their secrets, facilitated his escape, and gave some bullshit reason to the heroes about why it was all intentional. I assume that was just clumsy plotting.
This is not a character driven novel. For example, take Aven, notable in that she’s the only named female. She’s a captain of the Indigo Dragon. Only the ship doesn’t really need a crew, so she’s not really captain, she’s driver. Except that the ship can pilot itself, so she’s not really a driver, she’s just chief passenger. And she’s young, so it’s hard to believe she got the job due to merit, but rather through nepotism. She doesn’t act like a captain. She pouts, she bestows or withholds affection. She’s basically, THE GIRL. Jack, John, and Charles are all very similar I could tell Charles apart only because the narrator used a different accent. Jack eventually started to act a little differently, but I got him and John confused with one another for the first few chapters. There’s no internal dialogue, so we can only go by their actions, and their actions are mostly the same. Run. Fight. Hide. Shake fist impotently at bad guy.
My main grief with this novel was that it relied too heavily on well-known sources. The talking badger was just like from “Wind in the Willows.” The clockwork kings were named after cards, like in “Alice in Wonderland.” The evil king resembles Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin, and he has a hook for a hand (though it turns out he’s Arthurian in origin, not from Peter Pan) There’s a magic ring, Pandora’s box, centaur physicians, and a character who is basically Noah of the arc. (The seven brothers are cranes, not swans, I do give kudos to that alteration.) Elves are just like elves. Dwarves are just like dwarves, orcs are just like orcs, dragons are just like dragons. They feel largely unexamined; there’s no original spin to them. Many people will likely find this comforting and familiar, but I found it distressingly uninsipiring.
I especially disliked that John and Jack and Charles and Bert all turned out to be famous (real) people. I find this at best tacky and at worst libelous. Instead of being a magical surprise that made everything that much more meaningful, I found it revolting. These are real people with real families. Unless it’s a well-researched historical biography or personal memoir, I strongly dislike using famous people in novels. It feels like name-dropping as a cheap ploy to get us to care more. I know this is a personal aversion that not everyone shares, but it was a distasteful surprise that gave me a visceral reaction that I can’t shake. I very much respect C.S. Lewis and J. R.R.Tolkien and to see them used in this way felt like listening to someone tell lies about my friends.[ C.S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and having them shoehorned into this fantasy felt like someone gossiping about a dear friend. (hide spoiler)]
I also strongly dislike fanfic*, and I define fanfic as “using any character you didn’t create yourself except in a mutually consensual shared world.” I know this is also an unusual aversion, and it’s purely personal taste that made me curl my lip to see characters such as Captain Nemo, Magwich, and Mordred.
All in all, I felt that this novel was too formulaic for my taste and didn’t offer anything new. It’s like when taco bell comes out with a “new dish” that uses the same ingredients that the rest of its dishes have. It may be tasty, but it’s not really original. I recommend this book for young or otherwise reluctant readers who want a familiar fantasy story in a familiar fantasy setting.
I got the audiobook, and it was well narrated, but I think the paper book has drawings, which (from what little I’ve seen) look splendid and probably add a lot to the experience.
*Exceptions to my dislike of fanfic: THE BEEKEEPER’S APPRENTICE and THE WIDE SARGASSO SEA.